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t h e 



Also by David Whyte 

The Heart Aroused: 
Poetry and the 
Preservation oj the Soul 
in Corporate America 

Songs for Coming Home 
Where Many Rivers Meet 
Fire in the Earth 
The House of Belonging 

Crossing the 
Unknown Sea 

Work as a Pilgrimage 
of Identity 

David Whyte 

Riverhead Books 


2 0 0 1 

a member of 
Penguin Putnam Inc. 

375 Hudson Street 
New York, NY 10014 

A list of permissions can be found on page 247. 

Copyright© 2001 by David Whyte 

All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, 
may not be reproduced in any form without permission. 
Published simultaneously in Canada 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Whyte, David. 

Crossing the unknown sea : work as a pilgrimage of identity / 
David Whyte, 
p. cm. 

ISBN 1-57322-178-3 
1 . Work. I. Title. 

BJ1498.W48 2001 00-046891 

174— dc21 

Printed in the United States of America 

13579 10 8642 

This book is printed on acid-free paper. ® 

Book design by Marysarab Quinn 


To my wife, Leslie; her intelligent conversation on the subtle identi- 
ties of work, her loving and patient companionship and her under- 
standing of the travails of the writer were a constant strength to me. 
To my daughter Charlotte for her joyous infancy; long may she con- 
tinue to interrupt the strange priorities of the adult world . To my 
son Brendan for his companionship in the mountains, his humor, 
and the long morning sleeps appropriate to his teenhood that 
allowed me to finish the book during our memorable holiday. To 
Edward Wates for the timeless friendship, the single malt whiskey, 
the long night walks in Oxford, and the close listening. To John 
O’ Donohue, a poetic and imaginative brother, whose good and 
strengthening words during a scintillating literary weekend with 
our mothers set me to rights for the last stretch. To my mother and 
father, who figure largely in my inherited understanding of work. 
To Bennett White for his laughter and cheerful fortitude. To Val 
Morgan for excellent cooking, unsurpassable red wine, and the 
much-needed familial hospitality of Bovingdon. To Tony Morgan, 
whose encouraging early morning remarks greatly nourished a 
sense of promise in the manuscript. To my assistant Julie Quiring 
for her intelligent reading and acute comments on the first chap- 
ters. To Donna Humphreys for her resourceful and meticulous help 
with permissions. To Susan Petersen Kennedy, who hunted me out 
of the poetic undergrowth to write prose again. To my agent Ned 


Leavitt, who carried the true spirit of the writer’s intentions into 
his negotiations. And last, to my editor at Riverhead, Amy Hertz, 
who has a sure and intuitive understanding of the book struggling to 
be born from a writer’s first imaginative stirrings. This book is far 
better for her astute and careful comments than anything I could 
have accomplished alone. All the above have contributed to what- 
ever qualities the book may possess; its flaws and omissions are all 
my own. 






You have set sail on another ocean 
without star or compass 
going where the argument leads 
shattering the certainties oj centuries. 


“Respectable Outlaw” 



I . Courage and Conversation : 

Setting Out with a Firm Persuasion 3 

II. The Mountain Farm: 

A Stranger at the Door 9 

Mid. Ocean 

III . At the Cliff Edge of Life : 

From Powerlessness to Participation 31 

IV. A Star for Navigation: 

Ambition, Horizon, and Arrival 62 

V. Out of Ireland: 

A Short Sea Crossing 82 


VI . The Awkward Way the Swan Walks : 

From Exhaustion to Wholeheartedness 

VII. The Fatal Shore: 

Arrival and Authenticity 139 


VIII. Outlaw Imaginings: 

When the Real You Wants Out 1 53 



IX. A Marriage with Silence: 

Escaping the Prison of Time and Work 1 73 

X. Crossing the Unknown Sea: 

A Voyage Through the Hours of the Day 1 82 


XI. Keats and Conversation: 

The New and Newly Youthful World of Work 

Bibliography 246 

Permissions 247 

Index 248 


x i v 



Courage and Conversation: 

Setting Out with a Firm Persuasion 

Then I asked: Does ajirm persuasion that a thing is so, make it 
so? He replied: All poets believe that it does, and in ages of 
imagination thisfirm persuasion removed mountains; hut many 
are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything. 

— W illiam Blake 
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell 

Work is a very serious matter in almost all respects, whether it is 
work in the shelter of our home or work in the big, wide, dangerous 
world. Through work, human beings earn for themselves and their 
families, make a difficult world habitable, and with imagination, 
create some meaning from what they do and how they do it. The 
human approach to work can be naive, fatalistic, power-mad, 
money-grubbing, unenthusiastic, cynical, detached, and obsessive. 
It can also be selflessly mature, revelatory and life giving; mature in 
its long-reaching effects, and life giving in the way it gives back to 
an individual or society as much as it has taken. Almost always it is 
both, a sky full of light and dark, with all the varied weather of an 
individual life blowing through it. 

There is no hiding from work in one form or another. Under 



the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, 
through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective. Any 
perspective is dearly won. Maturity and energy in our work is not 
granted freely to human beings but must be adventured and discov- 
ered, cultivated and earned. It is the result of application, dedica- 
tion, an indispensable sense of humor, and above all a never-ending 
courageous conversation with ourselves, those with whom we 
work, and those whom we serve. It is a long journey; it calls on both 
the ardors of youth and the perspectives of a longer view. It is 
achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage. 

William Blake, that unstoppable creator, as both poet and 
engraver seemed to have a direct and conversational relationship 
with the wellsprings of work. Over a lifetime he exhibited a contin- 
ual inspiration, a profound vision and an indomitable ability, despite 
his poverty, to follow through with the tiniest details of his art. 
Blake called his sense of dedication a firm persuasion. To have a firm 
persuasion in our work — to feel that what we do is right for our- 
selves and good for the world at the exactly same time — is one of 
the great triumphs of human existence. We do feel, when we have 
work that is challenging and enlarging and that seems to be doing 
something for others, as ii, in Blake’s words, we could move moun- 
tains, as if we could call the world home; and for a while, in our 
imaginations, no matter the small size of our apartment, we dwell 
in a spacious house with endless horizons. 

“My fingers Emit sparks offire with Expectation of my future labours,” 
said the passionate Blake, in a letter promising plenty of hard work 
to his patron, Hayley. He was speaking from a felt sense of fulfill- 
ment and from the very last part of the eighteenth century, an age 

I 4 ] 


when our Western ideas of work were going through enormous 
change, an age when the factory was born, and production in and 
for itself was first conceived as an imaginative good. But Blake stood 
firm amid it all in his approach to work and in his writings, saying 
essentially nothing had changed. Factory or farm, individuals needed 
a sense of belonging in their work, a conversation with something 
larger than themselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual 
fulfillment and the mysterious generative nature of that fulfillment. 
Blake might have said that they needed a conversation with the 
angels. Earning and providing were all very well, but once the basics 
were met, human beings naturally turned their inward and outward 
eyes to greater horizons. 

Whether fulfillment lasts for a month or for a lifetime, most 
of us would not complain of its appearance in our lives however 
long or short its stay. If we cannot have Blake’s lifelong experience 
of wonder and inspiration through our labors, we will take just the 
merest touch now and again. Some have experienced fulfillment for 
only a few brief hours early on in their work lives and then meas- 
ured everything, secretly, against it since. Some have felt eager and 
engaged by their work for years and then walked into their office 
one fine morning to find their enthusiasms gone, their energies 
spent, their imaginations engaged in secret ways, elsewhere. 

To have ajirm persuasion, to set out boldly in our work, is to 
make a pilgrimage of our labors, to understand that the consumma- 
tion of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have 
become while accomplishing the task. To see life and work as a pil- 
grimage is not a strategy for increased production (though by 
understanding the wellsprings of human creativity, there is every 

1 5 1 



chance it might happen); it does not mean that we can lay out our 
careers in precise stages, clearly and concisely, as to when, where 
and how everything should happen. All of our great artistic and reli- 
gious traditions take equally great pains to inform us that we must 
never mistake a good career for good work. Life is a creative, inti- 
mate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or 
unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the partic- 
ular way we hold that passionate conversation. In Blake’s sense, a 
firm persuasion, was a form of self-knowledge; it was understood as a 
result, an outcome, a bounty that came from paying close attention 
to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made differently 
and uniquely for that world. 

Faith and Work 

Blake saw the great powers of life working on us like a kind of 
permanent gravity field, the currents of life acting and pulling upon 
us according to our particular heft and spiritual weight, our makeup 
and our nature. These currents surround us and inform us whether 
we are in the kitchen or in the office, in the woods alone, or 
crowded in a downtown elevator. To have a. firm persuasion, accord- 
ing to Blake, we must come to know these currents that surround 
us in an intimate way and build a kind of faith from the directional 
movement that results from a close conversation with these ele- 
ments. Almost like a sail conversing with the wind, every sail will 
respond differently to the elements according to its shape and the 
vessel it propels. And the response of the sail, with a steady hand at 
the tiller, creates movement and direction. In this conversation no 

I 6 ] 


one can get stuck for long; as an individual, you simply need to 
present some surface area to life. In Woody Allen’s words: Just show 
up; then it is only a question of direction. 

Showing up for work is difficult. You would think not showing 
up would be impossible for living, breathing human beings, but we 
know enough of ourselves on a bleak Monday morning, or certain 
co-workers of a bad day, to realize that as human beings, we are the 
one part of creation that can refuse to be itself. Our bodies can be 
present in our work, but our hearts, minds, and imaginations can 
be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere. 

Faith and Doubt 

Sometimes our hiding from others has been so successful that 
we can no longer even find ourselves when we want to. We feel sub- 
merged, heavy, immovable, stuck forever in the mud of our own 
making. I think of the patterns of air that circulate around a plane’s 
wing, lifting even the deadliest, heaviest part of us up and away, off 
the ground. Blake must have believed that every human being has 
access to these metaphorical aerodynamics; he drew figures depict- 
ing the dramas of human existence, people flying, falling, coming to 
earth or spiralling upward. He thought of the artist as a whole man 
or woman, someone with utter faith in the conversation, alert to 
the forces that stream around us. To waken this inner artist, we 
must assume a certain shape that puts us in conversation with the 
elements; we must cultivate a kind of faith in the moving energies 
around us and the way they to come to our aid, give us lift, no mat- 
ter our circumstances or difficulties. 

[ 7 ] 



If the Sun and Moon should doubt, 

They’d immediately go out. 

Blake said, sure of the brilliant and reflective nature of faith. 
Not that any life is free from doubt, especially when it comes to our 
work and the places we work. Many’s the time we gaze into the 
mirror in the course of a long work life and see our own faces 
shaded and eclipsed by a complete loss of connection with our 
striving. The eyes dimmed, the professional smile false and forced. 
We pick up the phone and make the call, though we have nothing 
to say. 

Whatever doubt we have, Blake asks us to put that doubt in 
conversation with grander, more eternal, more essential parts of 
ourselves. Underneath the face, underneath the surface profession- 
alism, underneath the brief obituary in the paper, there are forces 
grander than any individual human life at play. To lose contact with 
these forces is to lose a real sense of living, and especially of living a 
life we can call our own. Suicide, literal or metaphorical, is the loss 
of conversation with these forces. Any life, and any life’s work, is a 
hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The 
details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on 
the detail. 

1 8 1 


The Mountain 


A Stranger at the Door 

Years ago, in my early twenties, on a mountainside in North Wales, 
at the far end of Cwm Pennant, I found myself alone, lighting a fire 
in the grate of my friends’ farmhouse, waiting in vain for their 
imminent arrival. I had walked the long Welsh miles up the wet 
road, in rain and cold wind, but no car had passed me in the darken- 
ing winter light the whole length of the valley. 1 had hurried past the 
old tower in the woods that gave this remote place a strange fairy- 
tale aspect, then struck up the narrow hill lane and emerged on the 
ridge. Ahead of me, I could see the ancient farmhouse that always 
seemed, at first sight, to grow out of the mountain. 

I was cold, and 1 looked forward, in that freezing wind, to join- 
ing my friends, to their warm welcome and the hiss of a kettle. But 
the farmhouse was dark and silent as I walked through the gate. That 
day the house seemed to be waiting for someone in its slate-gray 
stillness, but there was no answer to my knock. 1 finally pushed the 
door open and went in. The kitchen was empty, cold, and lightless, 

David Whyte 

as if the walls were used to the coming and goings of whole genera- 
tions and one day of human absence was nothing in the span of cen- 
turies; but I was glad to be there, even alone. At least I would be dry 
in the midst of this arriving storm. I listened to the wind now 
beginning to tear at the trees, and shook off my coat and the rain. 
Here, alone in the place it seemed as if the farmhouse had taken on 
the essential character of a timeless and sheltering roof. It had been 
here for centuries, immovable, and today it seemed both generous 
and indifferent to me, a lone stranger waiting for his friends. 

I entered the living room, saw the empty grate in the fire- 
place, and looked out of the window onto a familiar landscape: the 
lowering valley shadowed by cloud, the cold, blue, snow-rimed 
hills, all announcing the coming of a very wet and very Welsh win- 
ter night. Beyond the mouth of the valley the dark slate of the sea 
surged ominously, lit by the final slants of evening light flung across 
its surface. 

Looking for a Vision 

I couldn’t help thinking, looking over the grand display of 
mountain and sea, that I was looking for an equally grand perspec- 
tive for my coming work life. I needed, in Blake’s words, a firm per- 
suasion, a conversation with something larger than my own 
personal hopes for a career. I was about to step out into the world 
from the shelter of my studies for what seemed like a forbidding 
journey. There were no jobs available in my chosen held of marine 
zoology, and thousands of unemployed graduates at that time to tell 
you that your dreams were to no avail . 

[JO 1 


In short, I was in the difficult place most of us find ourselves 
whether we are beginning biologists or bankers, aspiring academics 
or hopeful carpenters. I had a vague image inside me of what I really 
wanted to do — which at that time, in my single, young existence, 
was to live in some marvelously exotic place studying the life of the 
oceans — and an even vaguer idea of how I should go about it. Look- 
ing back, 1 realize now that I had far more than I could appreciate. To 
have even the least notion of what we want to do in life is an enor- 
mous step in and of itself, and it is silver, gold, the moon, and the 
stars to those who struggle for the merest glimmer of what they 
want or what they are suited to. 

One of the keys to any possible happiness in work must be the 
little self-knowledge it takes to know what we desire in life, how we 
are made, and how we belong to the rest of the world. But at this 
stage in my life, just prior to stepping out into the big world, I felt I 
was losing any faith in myself and what I wanted. I felt old, precious 
images of a work and a life that I had nurtured since childhood slip- 
ping through my open fingers. 

Work, Work, Work 

Work is difficulty and drama, a high-stakes game in which our 
identity, our esteem, and our ability to provide are mixed inside of 
us in volatile, sometimes explosive ways. We may have a difficult but 
outwardly calm day at work, and then find ourselves bawling at 
family members the moment we get through the door. We may be 
unhappy in our marriage but find our inchoate despair erupts only 
with co-workers. “Sara had a meltdown,” we say, describing our 

{ 1 1 \ 

David W h 

y t e 

supervisor’s tirade, or “John finally lost it,” remembering yester- 
day s confrontation. We describe dramas in the workplace as though 
we were outlining alchemical reactions or intuiting the ability of 
individuals to both find and then lose themselves in the midst of 
seemingly hardheaded decisions. 

Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can 
break ourselves. It is a making and an unmaking that can ultimately 
never be measured by money alone. In work we can indeed, and in a 
moment, build or ruin our fiscal fortunes, or we can slowly and 
imperceptibly, over long years, destroy the inner complexion of our 
character. Sometimes to our despair, we know instinctively that 
work is never done. At its worst we are Sisyphus, pushing the boul- 
der over the last incline only to see it fall back and away, out of our 
grasp, to the very bottom of the slope, to be pushed back up with 
the same despairing effort the following Monday morning. 

At its best, work seems never-ending only because, like life, it 
is a pilgrimage, a journey in which we progress not only through the 
world but through stages of understanding. Good work, done well 
for the right reasons and with an end in mind, has always been a 
sign, in most human traditions, of an inner and outer maturity. Its 
achievement is celebrated as an individual triumph and a gift to our 
societies. A very hard-won arrival. 

Seen in the light of a pilgrim’s journey, work takes on a 
greater significance than merely paying the bills and keeping the 
ever-present wolf from the door. With something larger in mind, 
something yet to be fully imagined, something to be looked for, 
then the hazards and the hopes, the trepidation and the triumphs of 
work are magnified and given import and meaning. 

[ 12 ] 


It is very hard to say no to work. We may courageously resign, 
take a sabbatical, or retire to a simpler, more rustic existence, but 
then we are engaged in inner work, or working on ourselves, or just 
chopping wood. Work means application, explication, expectation. 
There is almost no life a human being can construct for themselves 
where they are not wrestling with something difficult, something 
that takes a modicum of work. The only possibility seems to be the 
ability of human beings to choose good work. At its simplest, good 
work is work that makes sense, and that grants sense and meaning 
to the one who is doing it and to those affected by it. 

The stakes in good work are necessarily high. Our compe- 
tence may be at stake in ordinary, unthinking work, but in good 
work that is a heartfelt expression of ourselves, we necessarily put 
our very identities to hazard. Perhaps it is because we know, in the 
end, we are our gift to others and the world. Failure in truly creative 
work is not some mechanical breakdown but the prospect of a 
failure in our very essence, a kind of living death. Little wonder 
we often choose the less vulnerable, more familiar approach, that 
places work mostly in terms of provision. If I can reduce my image 
of work to just a job I have to do, then I keep myself safely away 
from the losses to be endured in putting my heart’s desires at stake. 

To view work as a pilgrimage is to put our hearts’ desires to 
hazard, because by merely setting out, we have told ourselves that 
there is something bigger and better, or even smaller and better — 
above all, something more life giving — that awaits us in our work, 
and we are going to seek it. We look around to see what we have for 
the journey and find at bottom that we possess only intuitions and 
imagination. We look for courage and as yet find little of it. 

1 i 3 ] 

David Whyte 

Finding the Courage to Begin 

We say to ourselves that we need more than ordinary courage, 
but really there is no ordinary courage. Either we are courageous or 
we are not. But the key is in the word courage itself. The word 
courage arises from the old French cuer, meaning heart. To be coura- 
geous means at bottom to be heartfelt. To begin with we take only 
those steps which we can do in a heartfelt fashion and then slowly 
increase our stride as we become familiar with the direct connec- 
tion between our passion and our courage. Without some kind of 
fire at the center of the conversation, a sense of journey through 
work, life becomes just another strategic game plan, a way of 
pulling wool over the eyes of reality while we get our own way. 

Once we have kindled our desire for something better in our 
work, we have immediately raised the stakes. Once we have taken 
the first tentative steps toward worthwhile creative work, we have 
brought to life embers inside us that would signal some kind of 
inner death should they then go out. In taking our work seriously as 
an expression of our belonging, we hazard our most precious — 
sometimes our seemingly most fragile hopes and dreams, in a world 
that is more often than not associated with a harsh and destructive 
bottom line. 

Alone in that cottage, all those years ago, 1 had begun to shiver 
not only with the cold of a Welsh mountain winter, but with an 
awful sense that I was suddenly about to play by different rules. That 
the inner light of youthful imaginings might be smothered by hard- 
bitten adult notions of work, inherited generation after generation. 

There are deep wells ofloss, bitterness and exploitation when 

l l 4] 


it comes to our human history around work. I realized that these 
wells could erupt and flood over any youthful individual hopes, 
whatever age I was, and drown them. The world of work I was 
about to confront was a mighty inherited sea of hard-won experi- 
ence, and I was just a small vessel coasting for the moment among 
its inshore inlets and bays. 

A Stranger at the Door 

I set to lighting the fire, carefully nestling the coals among the 
burning kindling and had just finally brought it to life when I heard a 
knock at the old weather-beaten door. I opened it to find another 
stranger to the house, drenched by the same walk up the valley and 
looking, as I was, for my friends. I invited him to the fire, and as the 
evening slipped by, and he began to dry out, we found ourselves 
overcoming our initial wariness, and the strangeness of the situa- 
tion: two unknown quantities in an unknown home, beginning to 
tell each other, as strangers do, a little of our life stories. We cov- 
ered a lot of ground very quickly, but as 1 was soon to find out, in 
the first round of conversation, he held back from the central 

As we moved on from our brief introductions, our conversa- 
tion roved over the particular atmosphere and character of the 
wooded valley of Cwm Pennant directly below our window. We 
both loved the mountains and valleys of Snowdonia, and I was glad 
to talk with someone who shared the same enthusiasm for this 
rugged corner of Wales, but his was no ordinary appreciation. I was 

{ 15 } 

David W h y t 

struck by his detailed knowledge of woodlands, trees, and animals. 
Not only his knowledge but his storyteller’s ability to articulate and 
reframe the natural world around us so that I began to glimpse it again 
in his words as if for the first time. Despite my own hard studies in 
biology, I found in listening to him that 1 was beginning to see it all 
again with new eyes. As the hours passed, I began to feel that this 
stranger was a very singular man, both in his work and his way with 
words. He was both a landscape gardener and a self-taught expert in 
the study of woodlands. His work also had some literal ground 
under it. He managed planting projects all over England and Wales. 

Asking the Question 

It is always a privilege to see in one person, knowledge, imag- 
ination and articulation combined, and a double privilege to be in 
conversation alone with that synergy of talents. I couldn’t help but 
warm to him, and I couldn’t help but open the small bottle of 
brandy I had brought to share with my friends. I was sure now they 
would never arrive that night. As 1 opened the bottle, I asked him 
how he had come to all this knowledge, and more to the point of my 
curiosity, how had he come to do the work he loved? I found myself 
telling him, as I would not have told many closer to me, that I felt 
stopped at a crossroads, looking for direction, unsure of my next 
steps. I told him 1 was beginning to feel a few icy tendrils of cyni- 
cism around what work might actually mean to most of the adult 
world, and with a long work life still ahead of me, I wanted to know 
what it took to find a life and a work such as he had found, a work 
into which you could really put your heart and soul. 



“So, what took you into all this?” I said as innocently as 1 could, 
pouring and holding up to him in the firelight, a half-filled glass. 

He took a deep breath, and at the same time, if I remember 
correctly, a swift, warming draught of the brandy, and said, 

“Do you really want to know?” 

Did I want to know? 1 looked at him, I looked at the brandy. I 
said that we had plenty of time and as it was now approaching mid- 
night, little chance of our mutual friends coming back to disturb us. 
He nodded back quickly in agreement and started straight in, the 
beauties of North Wales faded quickly in his first words. 

“I was entirely and utterly desperate,” he said. “Living in a 
dingy North London flat with people I couldn’t trust and who 
couldn’t trust me. That’s a story in itself, how I got to that point, 
with those kind of people in that kind of place, but 1 was one of 
them. I was a druggie, a dodo, a complete addict.” He looked me in 
the eye to see how this knowledge registered with me. I could see 
that he wasn’t worried what 1 would think, he was looking to see if I 
was worth the telling of the tale. 

“I was at the end of my tether and ready to end it all. I sat on 
that scuffed floor, looking at the open twelfth-floor window in my 
flat, coming to terms with the sheer bloody awfulness of my life and 
the way I had made a complete mess of it all. I felt sure that every- 
thing had abandoned me, and because of that I had abandoned 
everything in turn, including the little faith I had in myself. ” 

“That brandy,” I said. “Perhaps we shouldn’t?” 

“Thank you,” he said, with an airy wave of his hand, “and don’t 
worry, I can take this now or leave it; it was much harder stuff than 
this that brought me to the point of wanting to jump out of that 

[ 17 ] 

David Whyte 

He paused for effect, and the wind now howling outside the 
walls seemed to emphasize the silence he had created in the room. 


Jump. I got myself onto the window ledge with every intent 
of going through with it. I wanted to jump. It was a bloody long way 
to the ground, at least high enough to do the job, but I was too 
weak. I barely fed myself at the time, and there was this huge 
unkempt flower box across the whole length of the window.” 

“You obviously didn’t do it.” 

“Not for the want of trying. I couldn’t get over it. I still can’t 
get over it. I’ve never been so humiliated. I couldn’t even kill myself 
properly. The edges of the box were so high, I ended up with my chin 
in the mud and knees under the box. I have to laugh now, but it 
wasn’t much of a laughing matter then. My sweater was caught on a 
nail, my knees wouldn’t come over the inside of the box, and I had 
a cramp in my leg. 1 ended up sprawled across the wooden trough 
with the rain falling on me, my hands in the dirt, the tears running 
down my face in absolute frustration. I must have looked a sight, 
but nobody saw me. I suppose at that time I wouldn’t have cared if 
they had; the great thing was, 1 just gave up. There was nothing wait- 
ing for me back through that window, in that awful room, so I just 
lay there for the longest time, my arms out and my face down in 
the mud.” 

A Turn of the Tide 

“Facedown in the mud, something happened I hadn’t felt for 
years. I think that there are some experiences you can only crawl 

\ 1 8 ] 


into on your hands and knees in order to understand them. A psy- 
chiatrist once told me that suicide is not one event but a confluence 
of many happening all at once, and all of the conditions have to be 
right for the person to go through with it. First of all, you need 
despair, and yet strangely enough, while you are in despair the sec- 
ond thing you need is the will to do it, which, when you think about 
it, is a strange combination. Third, you need the weapon; fourth, 
you need to be alone; and fifth and last, you need the opportunity. 
Stuck in that planting box, I had lost my weapon; looking down at 
the soil in that box, I lost my despair. And suddenly I didn’t feel 
alone anymore. When the passion for ending myself had receded 
along with all those necessary conditions, I felt incredibly peaceful 
spread-eagled on the cliff edge of that muddy box. There was 
nowhere else to go and I was at least halfway out of the home I 
hated, halfway toward something better. It came over me, sudden, 
like. That’s suicide, you know: You get stuck and it’s time to move 
on, but you make the simple mistake of thinking you have to kill 
yourself to do it. 

“Suddenly I felt as if everything was in its proper place. I 
couldn’t quite believe it. I had literally opened a window and taken 
a little breath of freedom and entered a stillness I hadn’t felt since I 
was a child. You know, when you could look out of your window at 
the street and everything seemed to be waiting for you. As if there 
was a special kind of invitation waiting for you, and you alone, and 
you just had to listen hard to hear it. Well, there I was again. Oh, I 
hadn’t felt like that for years. First I was weeping with frustration, 
and then I was weeping because there was nowhere I needed to go. I 
was having a good cry for that young fellah inside me, waiting all 
those years to hear his name being called. 

119 ] 

David Whyte 

“It had been raining nonstop for days, part of why I wanted to 
chuck myself out the window, I suppose. I looked down and noticed 
that the rain had been running into one end of the flower box and 
carved a little river valley the whole length of the window. There 
was a miniature world right beneath my nose, a little Montana in 
that scene beneath me. On the banks of the tiny river, in the brown 
mud, there were green plants and shoots growing along its edge. It 
was the only world I had at that moment, so I took a good long look 
at it. Sometime in the next hour or so of lying there in my new- 
found peace, I began to mold the muddy earth into little hills and 
banks with my hands. I started to form little side branches of the 
river, and I began to lift some plants out carefully and put them in 
different places. 

“I must have lain there, wet through, working the ground with 
my hands, for a very long time, but for the first time in a very long 
time I had a glimmer, just a glimmer, of something I could do, 
something I could literally get my hands on. I felt as if God had 
looked at me again, and in that hour in the rain, in that tiny little 
world, halfway out of a twelfth-floor window, I had looked back at 
Him. Not that I’m formally religious or anything, but something 
had given me back an old memory, a sense of creation, a way back 
into the world. 

“I had my hands in the soil and I was molding the ground on a 
small scale the way I do now on a larger scale. I was landscaping, 
damn it. I was working the ground of my future life. That’s how I got 
here. I went back through the window, into that flat; I washed myself 
without thinking and with a determination I hadn’t felt for months; I 
went straight out. I fixed my eyes right on the ground, walked 

[ 2 0 ] 


straight past my local dealer on the corner and knocked loudly on 
the door of a friend. He wouldn’t believe my little epiphany but he 
was a good friend and he helped me check me into detox. When I 
came out at the other end I enrolled in a landscape course. A year 
later I moved to Wales. He believed me then, and more important, / 
believed me. It was the first courageous thing I’d done in years. I’ve 
never touched the hard stuff again — no, no need for it now, just a 
glass like this now and again; I have my work and I don’t want any 
other life but the one I have.” 

I must have been staring at him with my mouth open, because 
he leaned forward, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “We all 
have our own ground to work, you know. You have yours, too. You 
just have to find out what it is. But you know what? It is right on the 
edge of yourself. At the cliff edge of life. That’s the edge you go to. 
Put yourself in conversation with that edge no matter how frighten- 
ing it seems. Look down over that edge. It’s a bit terrifying to begin 
with but then you’ll recognize a bit of territory that you can work, 
something you can step out onto. It was there all the time for me, 
when I look back, just on the other side of a too, too familiar win- 
dow, out of which I had not been looking.” 

Looking Out to Sea 

Our mutual friends never appeared at the farmhouse that 
night, and we were left with each other and the remnants of the half 
bottle of brandy until we fell asleep in opposing armchairs, just as 
the moon was beginning to show itself after the storm. I remember 

[ 21 ] 

David Whyte 

the conversation as a kind of gifted revelation, as if in that listening 1 
had been rejoined with familiar but forgotten voices essential to my 
own life and work. I had listened so intently that I felt as if I had lain 
in that flower box along with him. 

In the wee hours of that night, by the fire, on a rainy Welsh 
mountainside, 1 began to work the clay of my own life again, to 
mold the territory of my own belonging. In the intimacy of the 
stranger’s story and the conversation that followed, I found myself 
beginning to articulate and reshape my history and felt newly 
emboldened for the waiting future that might lie ahead of me 
beyond that winter night. 

By dawn, I was staring out over the far sea, involved in a 
strange inversion of the stranger’s experience, for 1 felt as if / was 
new ground and the vast sea was reaching into my contained terri- 
tory and molding and shaping a future life. All the hours of the early 
morning, I looked out, feeling a kind of magnetism to that far 
windswept ocean, as if aware of the forces in my future that would 
draw me into my work, whatever form it would take, over the hori- 
zons and unknown seas to the west. 

Memory and Magic 

Looking back to that mountain farmhouse in the early 1 970s 
from our present brave new technological world, 1 feel as if 1 
am gazing on a primary, almost mythological layer of experience. 
The encounter in the farmhouse seems storybook, other-worldly, 
outlined and dramatized by memory and the pivotal nature of 

1 2 2 ] 


the encounter. Work centers so much on technology today, and 
the imagination mediated through technology, that it is easy to 
forget that the Dow Jones, the NASDAQ, the hardware, the soft- 
ware and the shareware are all meant to be good servants to the 
individual human soul’s desire to belong to the world. Not that it 
was any easier to find good work in the early seventies than it is 
now. Quite the opposite. I am gazing, I suppose, into a period of 
youthful aspiration in my own history, when my desires and my 
needs of the world were more touchable and urgent. But the more I 
look back into those youthful energies, the more certain I am that 
they are needed in all the stages of pilgrimage in a work life. We 
need, at every stage in our journey through work, to be in conversa- 
tion with our desire for something suited to us and our individual 

To my mind, one of the great disciplines of any human life is 
the discipline of memory, of remembering what is essential in the 
midst of our business and busyness. The human soul thrives on and 
finds courage from the difficult intimacies of belonging. But it is 
almost as if, afraid of those primary intimacies, we have uncon- 
sciously created a work world so secondary, so complex, and so 
busy and bullied by surface forces that embroiled in those surface 
difficulties, we have the perfect busy excuse not to wrestle with the 
more essential difficulties of existence, the difficulties of finding a 
work and a life suited to our individual natures; the difficulties that 
would lead us to an older, intimate, and more human sense of 
belonging. In the farmhouse all those years ago, I stumbled into 
conversational intimacy with a stranger and felt the whole course of 
my life pivot in the encounter. 

[ 23 ] 

David Whyte 

A Midnight Conversation 

In writing Crossing the Unknown Sea, I have attempted to re- 
create that special and privileged intimacy which occurs in the sud- 
den encounter between strangers. A time when paths cross at 
exactly the moment when both writer and reader are ready for a 
greater perspective. A moment when both might be ready to know 
something of the territory through which they have passed and a 
glimpse of the unknown future which might lie ahead. 

Crossing the Unknown Sea is meant to be an exploration and a 
midnight conversation, a look at our present vision of work and our 
ability to reimagine ourselves; a sea voyage into both our inherited 
notions of what work means to us and our experiences and intu- 
itions of what lies over the horizon. A reminder that work is not a 
static endpoint or a mere exercise in providing, but a journey and a 
pilgrimage in which the core elements of our being are tested in the 
world . 

Whether it be the Berlin Wall, apartheid, the bad old coercive 
Soviet system, or our own bad old coercive business systems, it 
seems that any foundations not now built on the realities of human 
relationship are being swept away by the forces of our time. In the 
same way, our notions of work are undergoing an enormous sea 
change, and because of that, our workplaces are themselves being 
worked on, molded and often scoured away by the same enormous 
tidal forces. We are moving from a familial, parent -child relation- 
ship in the workplace to an adult-adult relationship with our organ- 
izations, with all of the shock, difficulties, triumphs, and fears that 
entails. Unknown hands and as yet barely articulated tidal forces, 



are molding and scouring not only the ground on which we stand 
but the very shape of our identities. 

Crossing the Unknown Sea hopes not only to chart the journey 
into work itself and our present sense of power and powerlessness, 
but to offer something of a journey, an arrival, and, if we are lucky, 
a little insight through its poetry, its memories, and its stories. All 
good storytelling is reshaped by the listening and attentive imagina- 
tion. This book is an invitation to an imaginative conversation about 
life and work. In the attentive ear of the reader is the echo of the 
reader’s own story, joined invisibly to the conversation. 

Like the stranger I met that night on the mountainside, we 
mold the clay and ground of our lives and the territory of our work 
every day by what we do and how we do it. At times, many of us find 
ourselves hovering over precipitous heights, wondering if we 
should end it all — literally, like my mysterious friend, or metaphor- 
ically, by leaving our present work and its seeming entrapment. No 
matter, work in one form or another awaits us, whatever step we 
take, and probably, by its everlasting presence, even after death. 
Work, after all, at its best, is one of the great human gateways to the 
eternal and the timeless. 

In work we are constantly attempting to remember ourselves 
and reimagine ourselves at the same time. We change ourselves and 
our world every day by the way we are on the phone, in the office 
cubicle, or across the carpenter’s workbench. We may find our 
sense of belonging through investing millions in a millisecond in a 
myriad of countries, or more slowly by investing our time in a clut- 
tered city office working with the local dispossessed. Wherever we 
work, we need courage both to remember what we are about and, 

[ 25 ] 

David Whyte 

according to the tenor of our times, reimagine ourselves while we 
are doing it. We are not alone in this endeavor but secretly joined to 
all those who struggle out loud where we have not yet begun to 
speak or, when publicly, we are loud and vociferous, to those who 
labor painfully and secretly beside us. We are joined especially to 
those who have come before us. 

We are immensely privileged even to inquire about the mean- 
ing of our work. Many of our ancestors pined for good work as they 
would for a lover, and remained unrequited and stricken by want. 
Many of our ancestors died while working in dangerous or desper- 
ate conditions. Some left good work and found none to replace it. A 
few, a very few, left little, crossed oceans, and found abundance 
beyond hope. Others worked hard or traveled to new shores and 
dutifully sacrificed for their sons and daughters, while their hearts 
and minds were elsewhere, their own dreams unfulfilled, their 
innermost selves left high and dry, disappointed by time’s fleeting 
tide. Whatever our inheritance of work in this life, we are only the 
apex of innumerable lives of endeavor and sacrifice. Where we have 
come from, the struggles of our parents, our ancestral countries, 
their voyages, and hardships are immensely important. 

This book is meant to breathe upon and ignite the embers of 
our own memory and our own courage. In it, I hope to bring the 
powers of the imagination to bear on our present vexing, strategic 
questions about work and to call upon a deep, shared memory of 
the greater story of which we constantly forget we are a part. It is 
meant to get below our present preoccupation with the Dow Jones 
and the NASDAQ and begin an invisible conversation with all those 
who have gone before us and those who will inherit what we make 
of ourselves. It is, for the most part, a personal story, and as I have 

12 6 ] 


spent much of my life wrestling with unknowns, it is meant to be a 
dedication to that unknown. Our great hope, in wrestling with that 
unknown we must learn to call our life and our work, is to find a 
way to call on our courage for all the unknowns yet to come. I 
wrote this book based on my perception that at the threshold of our 
new century, we are attempting to gather whatever courage we 
have dormant in our hearts, individually and collectively, for a great 
journey across a difficult and unknown sea. 

[ 27 ] 


At the C l i // E d g e o f L if e : 

From Powerlessness to Participation 

I awoke to a different rhythm, a recognizably changed sway and 
catch of the boat’s movement. As I opened my eyes, I felt a sudden 
subliminal terror. I knew immediately that the boat was moving 
free, at the mercy of the waves, under no human control. I felt 
instinctively the spectral loom of the land very near to us, and I 
heard a deep, muffled, booming sound which set my blood to 
freeze. I looked across and saw our new replacement captain asleep. 

I leapt out of my bunk and ran in a frenzy up the ladder to the cock- 
pit. My first view was of last night’s anchorage, two good sea miles 
to the stern and a vast gulf of choppy water between us and it. I 
looked quickly over my shoulder and swore out loud; the lava cliff 
shadowed everything, the tip of the mast swaying just feet from the 
outward curving wall. Beneath it, the waves were sounding off the 
rock and throwing spray over the boat. Even as I looked, the boat 
was beginning to turn sideways on, the mast rising toward the curv- 
ing roof of the cliff. 


David W h 

v t e 

A moment later we were front on again, the bow lifting 
toward the rock. 1 looked madly for the lay of the trailing anchor 
line and saw it mercifully free of the propeller. A quick twist of the 
oil key, a stab of the button, and the engine coughed into life; then a 
mist of diesel fumes, a moment of unspeakable fear beneath the 
unholy roof of the cliff as the bow reared toward that implacable 
solidity, and I flattened the lever back into reverse. The bow rail 
seemed to freeze forever on its rise, then it dropped, fell off, and 
retreated from the cliff; the stern shot suddenly backwards, the 
deathly cliff receded, the world returned swiftly to sanity again, and 
the captain bounded from below. 

A mere eighteen months had passed since my encounter with 
the stranger high on a Welsh mountain and already I was on the far 
side of the world, farther than my imagination could have carried 
me that gray morning as 1 had looked out over the Irish Sea. The 
determination forged by my encounter with the stranger in the 
farmhouse seemed to have shifted the wind round in my favor, and I 
had graduated, weathered the gloomy job prospects, and, with good 
fortune favoring the newly brave, landed myself a plum job as a nat- 
uralist guide in the Galapagos islands. 

I was right bang on the equator, in the Pacific Ocean, 700 
miles from the South American coast, in the Mecca of biologists, 
living and working aboard the Bronzewing, a handsome forty-eight- 
foot sloop that had become my very movable home. Galapagos was 
everything a naturalist might dream of: exotic one-of-a-kind species 
above and below water, and the lingering glamour of Darwin’s brief 
passage still shimmering in the air despite the 1 40 years since his 
going. Like the young Darwin who had arrived here electric with 
excitement, I felt I had my work now, and my direction; but no 

[ 32 ] 


work or career can be a steady, laid-out progression. All in this gar- 
den was not completely rosy, and it was certainly no paradise famil- 
iar to the human eye. 

The Shock of the Real 

Though I had a dream job, 1 was suffering a kind of culture 
shock. Not the shock of encountering an unfamiliar human culture 
but the profound, shattering impact of looking nature straight in the 
face. I had encountered in Galapagos a culture that did not seem to 
include the human at all. For most of human history, these islands 
have remained undiscovered, and we are but recent visitors to Gala- 
pagos. As a species, we are youngsters in this very old world, and I 
was young, too, just in my early twenties. I found myself prone to 
the loneliness of this new world of ocean rocks and strange animals. 

I had come to study nature in all its glory, yet a secret portion of me 
found Galapagos in its raw form intensely frightening. Everywhere I 
went, I saw animals living and dying according to some other mercy 
than my human mind could stand. It all seemed to paint a world in 
which there was no immunity or hiding place for anything from the 
great cycles of life and death. This incident beneath the lava cliff was 
everything I had been anticipating for months in my secret fears. 

Though we profess to love nature, we like it packaged accord- 
ing to our human desires. We do not look too hard at the world for 
fear of what we will find there. On the threshold of this new world, 
1 was no exception. I found Galapagos intensely disturbing. The 
natural world unmediated by society is no picturesque, environ- 
mental idea but a raw force in which human beings often seem to 

1 3 3 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

participate on sufferance. Young as I was in Galapagos, I began to 
touch an exposed nerve in human experience: the sense that there 
is something larger in the world than mere human priorities. What- 
ever work I was doing, something larger, more frightening, with a 
different order of priorities was moving in parallel. Something that 
encompassed a grander and more difficult universe than my career 

Nature, Fortune, and Fear 

There is a long connection between the way we stand in fear 
of the natural world and the way we have used work as a bastion 
against the wilder, nonhuman forces of existence. Societally and 
individually, whatever we say on the surface, we are afraid of nature, 
and rightly so. Humans work hard and build imaginatively, genera- 
tion after generation. Then, as Camille Paglia says, “Let nature 
shrug, and all is in ruin.” Venezuelan shorelines disintegrate in tor- 
rential downpours. Industrious Kobe’s concrete overpasses fall in a 
tremor as if pushed by a petulant child, and even now, vast shelves 
of Antarctic ice threaten to float off and melt in our warming seas. 
We hear the news and ignore it all, but underneath, some old 
human imagination is stirred. “Get a good job,” a parent says, mean- 
ing “Get a safe job.” As if, over the years they have learned the 
wicked, veering manner of the winds that blow through life in their 
unmerciful ways; but also, they are passing on, parent to child, a 
fear bred into our human bones of that dark outer wind’s howling, 
pushing presence. The same wind that howled outside the farm- 
house that night in Wales. The same winds that blew us onto the lava 

I 3 4 ] 


cliff from our anchorage. Work provides safety. To define work in 
other ways than safety is to risk our illusions of immunity in the one 
organized area of life where we seem to keep nature and the world 
at bay. 

The Edge of Necessity 

In work, it has always taken courage to follow a unique and 
individual path exactly, because making our own path takes us off 
the path, in directions which seem profoundly unsafe. A pilgrimage 
into the night and the night wind. The territory through which we 
must travel to make a life for ourselves is always more difficult than 
we could first imagine; it takes us to the cliff edges of life. The amus- 
ing part is that you can spend years preparing for the possibility of 
falling off the cliff and then find yourself suddenly under the cliff, 
approaching it from another, equally terrifying direction. 

Finding a work to which we can dedicate ourselves always 
calls for some kind of courage, some form of heartfelt participa- 
tion. It needs courage because the intrinsic worth of work lies in the 
fact that it connects us to larger, fiercer worlds where we are forced 
to remember first priorities. The farm laborer knows the toil that 
literally puts bread on the table. The police officer knows firsthand 
the invisible line between order and disorder in society. I remember 
a recent dinner conversation with a water utility executive who had 
been in the midst of a massive Turkish earthquake. Awake night after 
night, doing work that was not part of his official job description, 
he and his team brought water, medicines, and supplies to bereft, 
panicking communities. Once the crisis was past, he wondered if he 


David Whyte 

would ever feel that aliveness and urgency again the rest of his days. 
He was wistful for the frontier encounter, the cliff edge. This cliff 
edge is a frontier where passion, belonging, and need call for our 
presence, our powers, and our absolute commitment. 

To approach work in this manner is not merely to look for 
constant excitement but to join a conversation with the great cycles 
of existence, cycles that often terrify us even as they call on the best 
of us. I think of my sisters, hospital nurses, intimately familiar with 
the once great, now fallen and achingly vulnerable: the former 
CEO wandering the hospital corridors in a dreamlike dementia, 
calling, John . . . John . . . John the track athlete slowly moving 
his legs after the car smash, his triumph now confined to the slight- 
est increase in their arc of movement. It is astonishing how much of 
our everyday work has powerful life-or-death consequences: the 
firefighter on the fragile roof, the policeman on the street, the elec- 
trical engineer bringing power back to a darkened neighborhood. 
The teacher curses his way to school and then says exactly the right 
thing at the right time to the vulnerable, listening adolescent. All 
good work should have an edge of life and death to it, if not immedi- 
ately apparent, then to be found by ardently exploring its greater 
context. Absent the edge, we drown in numbness. 

In Galapagos, I felt the presence of that cliff edge, almost 
every day and night- particularly in the night, when we navigated 
the reef-strewn islands without beacons, lights, or electronic 
instruments. All we had was the faint illumination of a compass and 
dead reckoning. Meanwhile, my own inner compass was pointing in 
a direction I didn t want to go. After years of distant biological con- 
ceptualization, I was being given a personal introduction to the 

[ 36 ] 


800-pound gorilla called nature. Whatever it wanted, in the end, 
nature seemed to get. The enormous power and reach of the natural 
world in Galapagos stirred me to search for whatever courage I 
could muster to face life in a way that was not based at its root on 

The closest I had come to this raw power in my own growing 
had been the fierce moorland winds of my native Yorkshire. As I 
looked into the wave forms cresting past the boat at night, I remem- 
bered the North Country fogs, the winter blizzards, the unending 
bogs. My mind roved back over the austere beauty of those seas of 
moss and peat. I couldn’t help but think of an equally fierce young 
woman who lived on the shoreline of those moors. 

No coward soul is mine, 

No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere: 

I see Heaven’s glories shine, 

Andjaith shines equal, arming me from fear. 

That was Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, at her 
own cliff edge, in defiance of all the fearful dangers standing 
between her and her work. She had to find a way across a very 
storm-troubled sphere. She spoke not only of the tearing elemental 
nature of that North Country wind but also of the forces she fought 
against in her own lifetime as a writer and a woman; a woman very 
visible to herself but barely visible to the masculine Victorian world 
into which she was born. What was the faith that armed her from 
fear? Fear of the wind and fear of societal displeasure? To my mind, 
it was some kind of intimate conversation that Emily was able to 

[ 37 ] 

David Whyte 

sustain, along with her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, with the more 
frightening, often hidden forces of life. 

Emily Bronte lived at the cliff edge of life from a very early 
age. She and her sisters, along with their brother, Branwell, lost 
their mother as young children. Her father, though present in the 
house, lived mostly in his study and his church and left them to par- 
ent themselves. There were no real adult voices advising imagina- 
tive caution. For most of us, an inner parental voice continually 
keeps the world at bay. It says, “Life is precarious; you young cannot 
know how precarious. Don’t add to the sum total of difficulty that 
awaits you: Stay off the moors: Stay off the ocean, stay away from 
the edge, don’t follow the intensity of your more passionate dreams, 
find safe work, and adventure not into your own nature lest it lead 
you directly into nature itself. Adventure only on the weekends of 
life and not in the working week.” 

These wary voices are deep inside us, whispering into our ears 
on the edge of a decision or as a background chorus as we walk into 
the office every day, even as we grow into our own middle age. 
Despite the lineaments of our streamlined organizations, the flow 
charts and the carefully calculated retirement, when we neglect this 
more forceful conversation with the edges of existence, a great part 
of us feels entirely subject to the mercies of the windblown world 
that has now become a stranger to us. 

The Edge of the Unknown 

Stories of near disaster on dangerous shores are not so far, 
then, from the dynamics that underlie a normal workday. Without 

[ 3 8 ] 


the presence of an edge in our lives, much of our work is bent 
toward keeping chaos at bay, staving off financial disaster, or inte- 
grating the differing wave forms of dozens of unpredictable people 
in a given organization. In the midst of it all, like a child determined 
to be noticed above the surrounding din, we have to keep up the 
noisy drumroll of results. Wave against wave, work is an uncharted 
sea. Any difficult conversation, any sudden change of career, we 
feel, may lead to a possible shipwreck. Yet increasingly now, despite 
our wish for safety, there is less that resembles a steady career or 
a straight career path. This moment of reckoning under the lava 
cliff speaks to the many dangerous arrivals in a life of work and to 
the way we must continually forge our identities through our 

A Necessary Simplicity 

Whether it is a place like Galapagos or a place like our office, 
if we are serious about our work we tend to find ourselves appren- 
ticed to something much larger than we expected, something that 
calls on more of our essence than we previously imagined, some- 
thing seemingly raw and overpowering. The young, exhausted 
lawyer glimpses, late one evening, the enormous commitment 
needed for her future partnership; the apprentice violin maker can 
only marvel at the older man’s simultaneous ease and absolute pre- 
cision with the tiny wood plane. Seemingly superhuman forces 
always call on individual human beings to simplify themselves. A 
kind of simplification, achieved day by day, hour by hour, in our 
given work 

, right into the essence of what needs to be done. That 

[ 39 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

simplified essence can terrify us, as I found in Galapagos. And that 
simplified essence is not to be found so easily, as T. S. Eliot indi- 
cated, using the metaphor of the sea so brilliantly. It seems to be 
hidden, between the waves themselves, because indeed, newly 
arrived at the edge, we have not yet developed the faculties that will 
allow us to see the pattern in full . 

Not known, because not looked for 
But heard, half heard, in the stillness 
Between two waves of the sea. 

Quick now, here, now, always — 

A condition of complete simplicity 
(Costing not less than everything) . . . 

— T . S . Eliot 
“Four Quartets” 

Our drama aboard the Bronzewing, adrift beneath the lava cliff, 
almost cost us everything, but our collective response to the near 
disaster was anything but simple. I will never forget the pale distress 
ol the captain as he first appeared and looked quickly from the cliff 
to me. In an instant, everything was said. Under the stricken white 
parchment of his face, I could see the sense of guilt plainly written 
for the world. He didn’t see it in mine because I was not yet fully 
aware of my part in the drama and I had hidden my contribution to 
the disaster at the bottom of a chasm yet to be explored. I could 
afford to be smug and artificially generous on the surface though 
secretly hold him to blame, even while my smugness slowly began 
to unravel from within. 

[ 40 ] 


Looking Into the Abyss 

My first reaction was the easy one. I could see only his neg- 
lect — his almost criminal neglect, to our seagoing minds — as 
captain. He had slept through not only the anchor dragging but 
our long, long, nighttime drift. I saw his painful humiliation too, 
because I, the mere naturalist on board, had discovered our plight. 
But there was a rising disquiet beginning to beat in my own chest. I 
and my fellow crew member Carlos, really knew our boat better 
than this new captain, and we were definitely more familiar with the 
particular anchorage from which we had drifted. We should have 
persisted in our shared opinion the previous night about our need 
to put out a second anchor line. We should have dropped another 
anchor without consultation, as crews are wont to do when they do 
not want to argue with their captain. We should have woken too. 

No matter that the inherited world of the sea told us that the 
captain is the be-all and end-all of all responsibility, we had all con- 
tributed to the lapse, the inexcusable lapse. The edge is no place for 
apportioning blame. If we had merely touched that cliff, we would 
have been for the briny deep, crew and passengers alike. The under- 
tow and the huge waves lacerating against that undercut, barnacle - 
encrusted fortress would have killed us all. 

Nothing was said; Carlos had appeared in the cockpit as we 
left the shadow of the cliff, knew all instantly, and disappeared just 
as quickly. We motored away, back toward the anchorage, the sleep- 
ing passengers blissfully unaware of how close they had been to a 
sudden, shocked and very violent end. I could hear Carlos starting 
on the breakfast. Nothing could be said — there was nothing to be 
said. The near-disaster seemed beyond any post-mortem, but my 

[4 1 ] 

David Whyte 

mind swung back and forth, unable to rest. There was nothing 
criminal in dragging our single line; we had gone to sleep in a flat 
calm, with the wind coming up suddenly in the night. Rabida Island 
has a notorious, difficult, sloping beach, unable to hold an anchor in 
any kind of blow. 

It was the captain’s sleeping through it all that had been so 
shocking. Captains do not sleep when wind or weather changes, 
they wake up. More secretly Carlos and I were shocked that we had 
slept on, too, but the captain was there in all his inherited and bur- 
dened glory and thus convenient for the blame. Historically, cap- 
taincy is not just a post, it is an inhabitation, the boat a second skin. 
It is parenthood, and even in your sleep an invisible monitoring 
consciousness should wake to the least whimper, to the most 
minute change in motion, never mind a dragged anchor and a two- 
mile rocking drift on a rough night sea. 

It was all the more disturbing when Carlos and I thought of 
our previous captain. A robust, strapping man, bred to the sea, 
Raphael had always been preternaturally alert and omnipresent, 
appearing on deck at the least sign of trouble. Raphael had been 
someone in the midst of the main event at all times and out of that 
example galvanized us to the same pitch of attention. We had made 
a tight, mutually trusting crew on board the Bronzewing. Raphael ran 
a very tight ship, but we also laughed, fished, and dove for lobster 
together. Raphael had guided my Spanish, and I had taught him the 
rudiments of English. He was good, very good for my first real 
apprenticeship to the sea, and then suddenly he was gone, pro- 
moted away from us. We had privately mourned Raphael’s rise to 
one of the larger yachts and the breaking up of our little team, 

[ 4 2 ] 


though we had said little to one another at the time. Now, it was 
easy to feel an outer confirmation of our inner sense that there was 
a stranger in our midst. We were surrounded by the far-stretching, 
changing ocean every day; trust in one another in the midst of this 
unknown, ever-shifting immensity was unspoken but incredibly 
important. The new captain had let us down. No matter that the 
Bronzewing was now forging purposefully back to Rabida Island, we 
were all in our hearts and minds temporarily adrift. 

Captains Courageous 

The great irony was that in his all -knowing alertness, we had 
allowed Raphael to lull us subtly into a lack of responsibility at the 
very core; we were alert as crew members, but Raphael had so 
filled his role of captain to capacity that we ourselves had become 
incapacitated in one crucial area: We had given up our own inner 
sense of captaincy. Somewhere inside us we had come to the deci- 
sion that ultimate responsibility lay elsewhere. I told this story of 
near disaster to a recently retired admiral from the U.S. navy. He 
listened with a lifetime’s experience at sea, looked me straight in 
the eye, and summed it all up: “A good crew doesn’t let a new cap- 
tain fail.” 

A six-month-old child is admitted to the hospital with early 
congestive heart failure. The doctor prescribes Rogoxin which stead- 
ies the heart rate but can be lethal above a certain level. The doc- 
tor places the decimal point in the wrong place and prescribes 
0.9 mg instead of 0.09. An experienced nurse catches the error and 

[4 3 \ 



consults with another nurse. They both say it is too high; they take it 
to a second doctor for a second opinion; he does the recalculation 
and says the first doctor was right. They give the Kogoxin at the 
higher dose and the child dies. Who had the captaincy? Somewhere 
inside themselves the nurses thought the doctor was the real captain 
no matter the outward circumstances and that they were powerless. 
They were not; they had the captaincy, but not the courage of a cap- 
tain’s convictions. 

The Lost Leader 

Sailing back to our anchorage in the midst of that silence set 
me to thinking of the edges and boundaries of everyday identity and 
especially the way that we live at the edges of our identity in work. 
Beyond the edge we have established for ourselves lies the unknown, 
where we often feel powerless and ready to blame. Above the throb 
of the engine, I was desperate to blame someone, crying out for 
someplace to lodge an ultimate sense of responsibility, and panick- 
ing a little because it came to rest nowhere but on my own shoul- 
ders. But how we long for that parental image of a captain or leader 
to carry the burden. 

“0 Captain! my Captain!” 

Walt Whitman cried out to Lincoln, seeing in his president a 
stabilizing, organizing force, that could guide him, not only through 
a terrible Civil War, but through the generous, untidy sea of Whit- 
man’s own life. Whitman’s lines of poetry are generally long, mar- 

[ 44 ] 


velous, out-of-control wave-forms. You see the great outlines of life 
through the way his poetry crashes and froths on the headlands and 
reefs of whatever he was attempting to describe. But in Lincoln, 
Whitman intuited someone who was neither claimed by the chaos 
of the waves nor chained by the stability of dry land, someone living 
right at the conversational cliff edge of a whole nation. In the bloody 
American Civil War, Whitman worked in frontline hospitals tending 
the wounded and the soon to be dead; he must have seen Lincoln 
as the great survivor, a man who lived through a whole series of 
near shipwrecks — in those perilous times, a true captain. Lincoln 
seemed to be steering the country even as it was convulsed by 
civil war, guiding a vessel that seemed to be coming apart in the 
bitterness of slavery. Even in difficulty, the president seemed awake, 
present, alert to the veering winds of conflict, trimming a way 
through the elements. 

“0 Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done, 

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we 
sought is won, 

The port is near, the bells 1 hear, the people all 
exulting . . . 

How desperately we need that captain. Someone to rely on, 
someone who will awaken when we are asleep, someone to take 
care of us without making it too obvious, but someone obviously to 
blame when everything goes wrong. We love a captain in our per- 
sonal kingdom, our politics, our country, our workplace, and espe- 
cially in the reflection of our own mirror. All or nothing. I am the 
captain, or someone else is. The Boss. We say, all our resentments held 

[ 45 ] 

David Whyte 

in suspension while the word soaks up our sense of responsibility. 
In the image of that all-knowing presence is everything we think 
we need. 

Until, that is, Lincoln is suddenly assassinated and we find 
ourselves immediately orphaned in the world. In the all-powerful 
presence of a great leader, it is easy to remain unaware of our own 
personal compass, a direction, a willingness to meet life unmedi- 
ated by any cushioning parental presence. Whitman’s cry for Lin- 
coln is the cry for those selfsame qualities brought to life in the 
heart of every individual. The shock of Lincoln’s death was the 
shock of living without his outer image, of having to live out that 
legacy firsthand. 

What do you see Walt Whitman? 

Who are they you salute, and that one after another 
salute you? 

— W alt Whitman 
“Salut au Monde!” 

The death of anyone close to us is always a form of salutation, 
a simultaneous good-bye to their physical presence and a deep hello 
to a more intimate imaginal relationship now beginning to form in 
their absence. My captain in the outer world had essentially been 
killed, he had let me down, and I was struggling to salute and recog- 
nize a personal sense of captaincy that lived in everyone. It seems 
emblematic to me also of the times in which we live — when, for 
many, all of the outer captains have been done away with; by their 
own actions, by our cynicism, or perhaps more truly because we no 

[ 46 ] 


longer want captaincy to be static and concentrated in single per- 
sonalities but movable and available, a provenance of our own. 

Waking the Captain 

In the moment that I had woken in a panic and seen the cap- 
tain still asleep in his bunk, simply for the sake of sheer survival I 
had not had time to wake him and was forced to rouse an equivalent 
responsibility in myself. It may be that we all come to this threshold 
at one time or another in our lives when suddenly the person on 
whom we have conferred captaincy is no longer present or avail- 
able. It may be their literal absence or a sudden insight in a meeting 
room that the man or woman at the end of the table cannot be 
relied on. We look and look and finally realize they are not available, 
they are deep inside some insulation which cannot be engaged and 
therefore cannot be trusted. Not because they are bad people but 
because they are not awake people. At that moment, whatever their 
outer title, to us they are no longer the captain. At that moment we 
are orphaned from a familiar parent-child relationship but we are 
also, if we can rise to the occasion, thankfully emancipated. We are 
ushered into an adult-adult conversation with our own powers. 
Something must be done: We must speak out, take the wheel, call 
the rest of the crew ourselves, or, if all of these avenues are blocked, 
abandon ship, resign, and go elsewhere. 

Whenever we attempt something difficult there is always a sense 
that we have to wake some giant slumbering inside ourselves, some 
greater force as yet hidden from us. We look for better work by first 

[ 47 ] 

David Whyte 

looking for a better image of ourselves. We stir this inner giant to life 
in order to find the strength to live out the life we want for ourselves. 
We want to live that image not for abstract heroic reasons but because 
we are desperate for more presence, more responsiveness, more alert- 
ness in our work. But first we must be able to recognize the image. 

Waking the Giant 

What do we look for in the hidden giant, the captain that is 
living inside us, as yet asleep? The same qualities we admire in good 
leaders we see in the outside world. What are the qualities that 
make us love the good captains, the good leaders, the good bosses of 
this world? What is it about them that brings out the best in us and 
makes us want to shine not only for them but for something we 
seem to be discovering simultaneously in ourselves? What is it 
about a great leader that allows us to be ourselves despite or even 
because of our faults and difficulties? Why are we so existentially 
disappointed when someone in a responsible position fails in that 
responsibility, when the captain fails to be a captain? Is it because, 
like Whitman, we feel without them we are losing a little of the 
color and texture of life, that when we lose them we also lose a little 
faith in our own calling? 

One of the outer qualities of great captains, great leaders, 
great bosses is that they are unutterably themselves. This is what 
makes their stature so gigantic in our imaginations. They are living 
at a frontier, a cliff edge, in a kind of exhilaration that we want to 
touch in our own lives. The best stay true to a conversation that is 
the sum of their own strange natures and the world they inhabit, 

[4 8 ] 


and do not attempt to mimic others in order to get on. Though they 
may try sincerely to communicate with others, these giants will not 
make themselves like everyone else in order to do it. There is no 
replacing a Mandela, the present Dalai Lama, a Rosa Parks, a Martin 
Luther King, a Churchill, a Susan B. Anthony, not because there are 
no more great leaders like them to come but because there are no 
more of those particular individuals. 

Rosa Parks was tired, not heroic when she refused to move to 
the back of the bus, it was her own tiredness and she stood by it, as if 
she was reclaiming an edge of exhaustion she hadn’t allowed herself 
to feel until then. It was the tiredness of work but also the utter 
exhaustion of being invisible, of not being seen. It was as if the true 
inner reality of her tiredness suddenly became the only thing visible 
to her, and having touched it, she was damned if she was going to let 
anyone take even that away from her. She took an element of her 
nature normally seen in a bad light and by inhabiting it fully turned 
a form of extreme tiredness that we normally consider as lead, into 
gold. She was a tiny individual who, because of her intense refusal 
to be anyone but her tired self, looms in giant fashion over our his- 
torical perspective of the sixties. 

At the other end of the spectrum, when we come to the image 
of a classic war leader, I think of Churchill, no bland product of 
strategizing spin doctors, but a cigar-chomping, brick laying eccen- 
tric of the first order. No Puritan either, Churchill did all of his 
morning work while comfortable in bed and, during a long life, 
drank his own very substantial weight in Champagne and brandy 
many times over. He had suffered satire, discouragement, near 
bankruptcy and political exile, yet when Britain was drifting onto 
the rocks of defeat in May 1940, he was awake and ready to face the 

[ 49 ] 

David Whyte 

shadows of Nazi Germany. He offered to the British people not 
the need to please, but “ blood, sweat and tears,” the will to survive, 
and a glimmering hope of future triumph. Britain had a giant to 
wake because Churchill was a giant self, independent of any outer 

I think also, against all my better instincts, of Margaret 
Thatcher, much loved in the United States but mostly disliked now 
in the Britain that elected her to power throughout the eighties. Her 
great triumph was to smash an old complacent political order that 
was doing no one any good, but to do it in a way which disenfran- 
chised many and set people at each other’s throats. That being said, 
it took a certain species of obnoxious self-righteousness peculiar 
only to herself to be able to do it. I vividly remember being back- 
stage at an international event in San Francisco with the former 
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. president George 
Bush, waiting for the proceedings to begin. All at once, the door 
seemed to blow open, and from the outer world, Margaret swept in 
with all the impact on our quiet backwater of a tropical cyclone. In 
moments she had roiled the calm backstage ambiance and bent 
everything and everyone to her enormous will. 

Firstly, she told the former president of the Soviet empire to 
sit down and rest because he looked exhausted, then she turned 
upon the former leader of the free world and told him in no un- 
certain terms that he looked piqued and must immediately get 
something from the buffet. George went with the tide and com- 
plied. Finally she pinned Bernard Shaw of CNN up against the wall 
and insisted that he reveal the questions she was to be asked that 
evening in front of the television cameras. All protestations of jour- 

| S 0 1 


nalistic freedom were batted aside and Bernard was worn down and 
snapped at like a sheepdog with an errant ewe until he surrendered 
up at least a tiny morsel of information. This done, he was released 
and allowed to assume an upright position. 

I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer bloody-minded willful- 
ness of the woman. No matter my prejudices against her, she was 
unutterably herself, a force of nature. I thought to myself that there 
was nothing essentially wrong with her; whatever the negative fall- 
out of her political reign, it was the fault of those of us, her minis- 
ters, her political opposition, the voting population, who could not 
stand up to her and be just as robust in our ability to say no. There 
had been almost no one who had had enough confidence in them- 
selves to meet her on equal terms. When in the presence of that 
kind of power we give up on our own powers, we allow for a kind of 
despotism. We allow an individual to be themselves in isolation 
from all other individuality, which is good for neither the Margaret 
Thatchers of this world nor the world on which they leave their 

To wake the giant inside ourselves, we have to be faithful to 
our own eccentric nature, and bring it out into conversation with 
the world. We can rely on the conversation itself to iron out the 
selfish aspects of our nature. In baseball parlance, we have to step up 
to the plate; in the parlance of the soul’s exploration, we must step 
to the frontier of the unknown where there are great possibilities at 
play, where we do not know where our courageous speech might 
lead us. We have to say no just as firmly as we say yes. Yes, we want 
the attributes of leadership but often falter in the presence of the 
real thing. 

IS 1] 

David Whyte 

Standing Up to Others 

We love a strong captain, but how do we live out our own cap- 
taincy in the shadow of those who seem to overwhelm our own 
nursling qualities by the overpowering nature of their character or 
competency? Is it because we have no equivalent image inside our- 
selves to match the outer image which is trampling over our world? 
Margaret Thatcher was famous for her tyrannical hold over her 
ministers — almost all of them men, almost all of them products of 
Britain’s traditional public schools. They had absolutely no experi- 
ence of powerful women behaving in this fashion. Perhaps they had 
read about certain Greek goddesses in their classical studies, but the 
only woman they would have had any daily contact with through 
their schooling would have been the matron; the school nurse. They 
had absolutely no inner image of a wilder, more willful femininity 
to correspond to this outer political fury, and they were almost all 
helpless before her. Orbiting her central sun, they became a bland 
circle of yes-men caught in the grip of her gravitational influence. 

In order to stand up against a force of nature, we often have to 
find that same elemental nature inside ourselves. Many times in our 
work lives we walk through the office door with our shoulders 
hunched to our necks, feeling powerless and bullied by those who 
hold power over us. Our refusal to stand up to those who harass us 
on a daily basis becomes, in effect, a lack of faith in our own voice, 
and the nature that that voice bestows on us. A vicious circle begins 
in which our refusal to speak out confirms our vulnerability and 
increases our invisibility. We feel certain that we will lose our job, 
our position, our career, and no one will ever look at us again. Or, 
like the ministers who surrounded Margaret Thatcher, we may not 

[ 52 ] 


even know how to begin a conversation with that kind of irrational 
power. Sometimes we are rightly quiet in the face of dire conse- 
quences for our career or our families, but more often than not we 
are simply living in the shadow of our own fears. 

I remember Joel, a consultant friend of mine, telling me of his 
failure to stand up to one bullying CEO early in his career. Joel 
recounts with some wonder how he had collapsed completely at a 
crucial moment of confrontation because there was no inner giant 
to wake inside him. Quite the contrary, not only did Joel see himself 
being bred if he stood up to the CEO, but he had the incredible and 
irrational image of himself living out the rest of his existence as a 
bag lady on the streets of Berkeley, his then home in California. The 
prospect of being bred was not irrational to Joel, the image of him- 
self as a bag lady was. What Joel had stumbled into was an unspoken 
fear which he had not yet explored, and which hid from him the 
deeper strengths of his own nature. As soon as he found himself 
in that unspeakable territory, his will collapsed. The fact is that 
whatever Joel was most afraid of he would surely become if he con- 
fronted the angry CEO, no matter that it involved the little imagi- 
native matter of a sex change. Joel was sure that the CEO would 
talk to every other CEO in his native California and bar him from a 
fruitful career. But Joel went on to say that whatever courage he had 
learned now as a consultant in his organizational work came from 
that moment. Joel realized that in order to be effective he had to 
take an inventory of his own fears; whatever he did not know of his 
own fears would blind him at the moments when he was faced with 
an unknown. Joel made a further crucial distinction: He did not 
have to overcome his fears, he simply had to know what he was 
afraid of. 




Almost always when we ask hard questions about leaders and 
leadership, we have to ask hard questions of ourselves, too. We have 
to take an inventory not only of the gifts we have to give but of the 
gifts we are afraid of receiving. What are we afraid of, what stops us 
from speaking out and claiming the life we want for ourselves? 
Quite often it is a sudden horrific understanding of the intimate and 
extremely personal nature of the exploration. When we ask in a 
serious manner for those marvellous outer abstracts of courage, 
captaincy, and greatness, we set in motion an exploration that tests 
us to the very core. We suddenly realize the intensely personal 
nature of all these attributes. Stephen Spender has it very well in his 
poem, The Truly Great. 

I think continually of those who were truly great 
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history 
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns, 

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition 
Was that their lips, still touched with f re, 

Should tell of the spirit, clothed from head to foot in song. 

And who hoarded from the Spring branches 
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms. 

What is precious is never to forget 

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs 
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth. 

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning’s simple light, 

Nor its grave evening demand for love; 

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother 
With noise and fog thefowering of the spirit. 

[ 54 ] 


Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields 
See how these names are feted by the waving grass, 

And by the streamers of white cloud, 

And whispers of wind in the listening sky. 

The names of those who in their lives fought for life, 

Who wore at their hearts the fi re’s center. 

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun, 

And left the vivid air signed with their honour. 

— S tephen Spender 

Spender talks of hoarding from the spring branches the desires 
falling across our bodies like blossoms. A simultaneous harvest and 
fading away, growth and disappearance, that involves an exploration 
of both sides of life’s equation, our continual appearance and disap- 
pearance as if rehearsing for the ultimate disappearance in death. Is 
there any other real source of courage? At the end is left only a vivid 
signature in the air, an echo of Keats’s epitaph, “Here lies one whose 
name was writ in water.” Not a testament to loss but a courageous 
acceptance that we make our mark and then move on, but it is the 
making that makes the meaning. 

Personality and Passion 

The great question about leadership, about taking real steps 
on the pilgrim’s path, is the great question of any individual life: 
how to make everything more personal. How to understand life or 
leadership not as an abstract path involving devious strategies but 

[ 55 ] 

David Whyte 

more like an inhabitation, a way of life, a conversation, a captaincy; 
an expression of individual nature and gifts and a familiarity with 
the specific nature of your own desires and fears. In a conversation 
there is always more than one voice, and one of the voices must be 
our own or it is no conversation at all. We do not try to overpower 
others at work with our voice in order to have a conversation, nor 
do we substitute someone else’s for our own, but we are there, we 
are present, we are heard. We play the tension like a violin string at 
concert pitch. We stop looking for heroes to come and show us the 
path to glory, but we do not ignore the courageous example of oth- 
ers. In their presence, or under the influence of their reputation, we 
attempt to find the same inner correspondences in our own bodies 
that will allow us to take the next courageous step that we can also 
call our own. 

In order to assume our captaincy, we should not genuflect 
before the imposing array of other captains. We must stop indulging 
in worshipful idolatry of Bill Gates or Jack Welch (in their wiser 
moments, they surely wish to escape from that idolatry), and put 
our energies toward taking the short but difficult next step on our 
own pilgrim’s path to self-knowledge. So long as this path is a real 
conversation with the greater world, it will lead us right to the 
frontier of presence we desire. Taking any step that is courageous, 
however small, is a way of bringing any gifts we have to a surface, 
where they can be received. For that we have to come out of hiding, 
out from behind the insulation. In a way, we come to an under- 
standing of ourselves in our work according to where we have 
established our edge. Wherever our edge of understanding has been 
established is the very place we should look more intently, but it is 

[ S 6 J 


also the very place that fills us most with fear. In my own captain’s 
failure I had come to an edge that I had previously refused. 

Coming Out of Hiding: 

Being the Captain 

After our near disaster beneath the cliff face, how did I see the 
captain’s failure? It had everything to do with being in hiding. Some- 
how this new captain, whose professional world was made up of his 
maritime experience, the boat, its itinerary, its crew, its passengers 
and the wild elements that surrounded it, had allowed his attention 
to retreat into an insulated room inside himself that had no connec- 
tion with the immediacy of his outer world. In the rough territory 
of the Galapagos, washed by the restless Pacific, the result was a 
neglect and forgetfulness, a sleep in which others could die. 

There is a marvelous relationship between the living body of a 
sailing vessel and the actual human body we try to inhabit every day 
in the workplace. Our attempt to convey an idea to others in the 
office, or our attempt to show others that we are useful and have 
something to give, is a way of feeling physically present in the world. 
Our bodies and our personalities are vessels, and leadership, like 
captaincy, is a full inhabitation of the vessel. Having the powerful 
characteristics of captaincy or leadership of any form is almost always 
an outward sign of a person inhabiting their physical body and the 
deeper elements of their own nature. In the same way, to sleep 
through crucial moments of our work life is to eventually find our- 
selves on the rocks, to put ourselves or our organizations in danger. 

1 S 7 ] 



It is not that a captain cannot sleep, but even in sleep theirs 
should be a cultivated attentiveness, which is essential at sea. It is 
something akin to the way we can wake ourselves at a specific time 
for an important occasion even if we have forgotten to set the bed- 
side alarm, except this is a continuous alertness — accessible even in 
the deepest modes of sleep. Every turn of the tide or the weather is 
important. A good captain wakes as soon as the wind veers or the 
rhythm of the waves lapping at the hull increases. 

Waking in response to change is, in effect a litmus test of iden- 
tity for a leader or a captain, because the ability to know even in 
unconscious modes what is occurring at the surface speaks to the 
way that the attributes of seamanship have soaked right through to 
the core of the captain’s identity. Even when a captain rests, he or 
she does it in conversation with the rhythm of the ocean. The life of 
the edge is perceived right through to the interior, even in darkness, 
even in sleep. At sea, this edge is the skin of the boat and the way 
that edge responds to the living commands of the ocean and the 
moving air. This edge is more often than not represented by all the 
courageous conversations we must continually have to keep in 
touch with the dynamics affecting work; by staying aware of this 
elemental edge, we can more readily keep to the bearing indicated 
by our inner compass. 

Once we begin to engage those elemental edges through dailv 
courageous speech, we start to build a living picture of our own 
nature, exactly the same way a captain gets to know her vessel and 
the particular way it reacts to the elements that surround it. As cap- 
tain of our soul’s journey, we feel the angle of the sails, the creak 
and strain of the ropes, the lean of the tiller, and learn the particular 

[ 5*1 


hum and song of our conversation with the elements. It is this con- 
versation that gives us not only our powers of survival but a music 
of exhilaration for our journey and arrival. 

It seems to me that every human life has the elements of a sea 
voyage, of a journey and an arrival. That every human life is also like 
a vessel that contains innumerable other lives for which we have a 
deep responsibility. That this vessel journeys from one unknown sea 
to another as we go through important epochs of our lives, and that 
every soul’s journey in the world is like a captaincy — that is, an 
identity which is necessarily attentive, powerful, and responsible, 
but not fixed, more like a meeting place of the elements in which 
the known vessel and the unknown sea must join in vital conversa- 
tion. Out of this conversation we create a directional movement in 
the world that not only ensures our survival but creates exhilaration, 
the wind on our face, an immersion in the present whilst we simul- 
taneously experience the joy of speeding toward our destination. 

To my mind, this captaincy, this responsible and responsive 
presence, this creation of an elemental meeting place inside oneself 
or in one’s organization or society, is not just an individual dynamic, 
but one in which the whole of humanity is collectively engaged. We 
are living at a time when much of the way we see and describe our- 
selves is under immense strain from the currents of change that 
swirl around us. Our old fixed, terrestrial ideas and the language to 
describe those ideas do not seem terribly well adapted to the fluid- 
ity of our new ocean world. We are each being impacted in enor- 
mous, far-reaching ways by the tides of ecological and technological 
change and the sudden realization that we inhabit a much more 
complex, intimate universe than we imagined. We intuit that we are 


David Whyte 

about to cross a great expanse to a new place, but our maritime 
abilities, our sense of captaincy, our courage, our responsiveness — 
individually and collectively — are under severe test. 

Imagination Amid Complexity 

The severest test of work today is not of our strategies but of 
our imaginations and identities. For a human being, finding good 
work and doing good work is one of the ultimate ways of making a 
break for freedom. In order to find that freedom in the midst of the 
complex world of work, we need to cultivate simpler, more ele- 
mental identities truer to the template of our own natures. We must 
understand that we carry enough burdens in the outer world not to 
want to replicate that same sense of burden in our inner selves. We 
need a sense of spaciousness and freedom, but find we can claim 
that freedom only by living out a radical, courageous simplicity — a 
simplicity based on the particular way we belong to the world we 
inhabit. If we ignore our simpler necessities, the attempt to create a 
complex professional identity most often buries us in layers of insu- 
lation through which it is impossible to touch our best gifts. Our 
lives take the form of absence. Like the captain asleep below, we 
become exhausted from the effort needed to sustain our waking 
identities. The day may be full, we may be incredibly busy, but we 
have forgotten who is busy and why we are busy. We lose the con- 
versation, we lose our calling, we lose our sense of captaincy. To 
wake up and assume the captaincy no matter the perceived outer 
hierarchy, we have to realize that our lives are at stake; the one 
unique life, entirely our own, it is possible for each of us to live. 

[ 60 ] 


Death is much closer to each of us then we will admit; we must not 
postpone that living as if we will last forever. 

We speak of genius when we speak of leadership, hoping for 
some of that elusive genius in ourselves, but the word genius in its 
Latin originality means simply, the spirit of a place. The genius of 
Galapagos lies in its being unutterably itself; the genius of an indi- 
vidual lies in the inhabitation of their peculiar and particular spirit 
in conversation with the world. Genius is something that is itself 
and no other thing. 

The task is simple and takes a life pilgrimage to attain, to 
inhabit our life fully, just as we find it, and in that inhabitation, let 
everything ripen to the next stage of the conversation. We do this 
because that is how we make meaning and how we make everything 
real. The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversa- 
tions real. The conversations of captaincy and leadership are the 
conversations that forge real relationships between the inside of a 
human being and their outer world, or between an organization and 
the world it serves. All around these conversations, the world is still 
proceeding according to mercies other than our own. This is the 
ultimate context to our work. The cliff edge of mortality is very 
near. We must know how easy it is to forget, how easy it is to drift 
onto the rocks and put our lives to hazard. Everything is at stake, 
and everything in creation, if we are listening, is in conversation 
with us to tell us so. 

[ 61 ] 

I V 

A S t a r j o r Navigation: 

Ambition, Horizon, and Arrival 

The bell clanged behind the cabin door and with one last hungry 
look toward the horizon, the passengers and crew went below for 
the waiting meal. One brave soul who wished to remain on deck 
was bullied back into the cabin by the imploring, anguished, Span- 
ish of the cook, and vanished at last through the door. I stayed 
where I was. I didn’t have a choice; I was on watch, but it didn’t 
matter. 1 was hungry but very glad to be left alone at the wheel. This 
wind was no ordinary wind, and the fiery sky behind me was no 
ordinary sunset. It was no sunset at all. The sky was red because it 
was literally on fire, plumed and clouded by an erupting volcano 
filling the western sky. The strength of the wind came from the heat 
of the eruption lifting great draughts of air into the upper atmo- 
sphere and stirring the still surface air below to life. We were in a 
veritable Mistral of wind, a powerful but steady force blowing 
toward the volcano, replacing the lifting air being drawn toward the 
fiery summit. 

Once alone, I was able to enter a joy that goes beyond the 

[ 62 ] 


bounds of any happiness you can show in company. At the same 
time, as if to push my good spirits over the edge, a crowd of dol- 
phins came leaping southward toward our bow, their fins curving 
and disappearing. I looked back at the glowing, late afternoon sky 
and then forward at the taut mass of sail, and exulted at the sheer 
beauty of the islands that had become my home. I looked at every- 
thing as if 1 might never see it again. This was my last tour. I was 
leaving Galapagos at last and moving on — moving on to do what, I 
did not know. Beneath the surface incandescence I had the profound 
regret of leaving a place that had given me everything I had desired 
in a work and a life. Everything in the previous decade of my young 
life from the age of thirteen had been bent toward my arrival in a 
work or a place like Galapagos, and now I had set myself to travel 
beyond that horizon into uncharted seas. I felt both vulnerable and 
emboldened at the same time. 

There is a strange way in which at each crucial juncture in our 
work lives, whenever we leave the familiar behind, we become in a 
certain way, childlike again. In our vulnerability we look for the 
grown-up equivalent of parental help, but we are also thrown back 
upon those images and inner resources that are the province of the 
dreaming youngster. The divorced woman sits in her empty house 
recalling the young woman who first entered it in marriage. The 
retiring professor recalls his first enthusiastic discoveries in the sub- 
ject he has read for a lifetime. The jobless manager begins in her 
grief to familiarize herself with possibilities at the very center of 
feeling unwanted. The single most useful power inside us at these 
critical times is the expressive imagination, that part of us that 
dreams and creates images representative of both our deepest 
desires and the way we feel we are made for a continuing work in 


David Whyte 

the world. The part of us staring hard at the horizon for celestial 
clues as to our relative position on the moving sea we call a life. 

First Horizons 

Every work begins as an intimation and discovery. Like the 
first time as a child we walk to the edge of a Yorkshire field, glimpse 
a new horizon, and immediately want to go there. We do not know 
where the horizon will take us. We have a glimmering, an inclina- 
tion, a notion that somehow we will find something beyond our 
present knowledge. The excitement is palpable and belongs to the 
horizon and our young anticipatory bodies at the same time. We run 
toward it, glad and unthinking, the mere presence of horizon itself 
grants us a sense of freedom. This sense of freedom is not confined 
to physical landscape. I remember the absolute sense of excitement 
at nine years old, when I picked up my first book of poetry and read 
it as if I had discovered a secret code to my future life — which, as it 
turned out, I had. In it I glimpsed an imaginative, literate horizon 
which was worth taking a lifetime to reach. I had the same experi- 
ence at twelve years old when I first saw Jacques Cousteau on our 
tiny black-and-white television screen and conceived the strange 
notion of studying marine biology. To my young mind, the small, 
rounded square of the television set on which he and his ship Calypso 
appeared, represented an unaccountable vastness; it gave me a feel- 
ing that there was work in the world that could sail you off the small 
screen of your present life into something astonishing and inde- 
scribable, a world inhabited by creatures and tidal forces unfamiliar 
and deliciously wild. It was life as horizon and excitement. 

[ 64 ] 


Each of us, somewhere in the biography of our childhood, 
remembers a moment where we felt a portion of the world calling 
and beckoning to us. We are creatures of belonging, and as our 
growing consciousness as a child forms we look for the expressions 
of our belonging in every quarter. Out of this sense of belonging, 
the world seems to call to us, to recognize us, and to speak to us 
directly, the voice itself an embodiment of our particular nature 
and the way that nature finds a home in the world. At best, this 
conversation between ourselves and the world becomes our work. 
Sometimes we are able to remember and follow the flow of this 
conversation, but sometimes as a child we were made to feel pow- 
erless by the enclosing adult world, and were bullied into forgetting 
the horizon it represented. Later, in the middle of the road of our 
adult lives, in a state of utter forgetfulness, we may wake like 
Dante, in a dark wood, looking for some inner compass bearing that 
will steer us to the freedom of that horizon again. The inner com- 
pass almost always leads us back toward that childhood we have 
spent so much time trying to leave behind. We return there not to 
become a child again but to remember those instinctual joys which 
filled our imaginations and growing bodies and set our enthusiastic 
course into the world. There is something trustable about the origi- 
nal enthusiasms of the very young that point directly toward the 
way we are made. 

The poet Wordsworth is probably the most famous investiga- 
tor of this phenomenon. At twenty-eight, snowbound in the winter 
of 1798—1799, in a small and unwelcoming German hill town with 
his sister, Dorothy, Wordsworth felt as far from his work and voca- 
tion as he ever would: lost, directionless, bereft of inspiration, all of 
his previous youthful enthusiasm burned down to nothing. In that 




frozen winter they had for company only their landlady, a French 
priest, and a deaf neighbor with bad teeth. He later lamented to a 
friend about the awfulness of the situation: “With bad German, bad 
English, bad French, bad hearing and bad utterance you will imag- 
ine we have had very pretty dialogues.” In the midst of this chilly, 
inarticulate exile, with the direct emotional help of his sister, he 
began to call on the only resource available to him: his own physical 
memories of what it had meant as a child to grow amid the moun- 
tains and lakes of his native Cumbria. 

He began with the memory of himself as a five-year-old child 
by the river Derwent: “A naked savage, in the thunder shower.” 
Then, as Stephen Gill says in his biography of the poet, 

Wordsworth releases memories of birds nesting among 
the perilous crags, of snaring woodcocks in the moon- 
light, of hooting to the owls across Windemere, and of 
stealing a rowing boat on Ullswater. The tone of the 
verse is awed, reverent, above all grateful for the process 
by which a ten-year-old could hold 

unconscious intercourse 
With eternal beauty drinking in 
A pure organic pleasure from the lines 
Of curling mist, or from the smooth expanse 
Of waters coloured by the cloudless moon. 

Through the physical aliveness of deep memory, Wordsworth 
not only kept faith with his newly forming identity as a poet but, by 
winter’s end, had composed 400 lines of blank verse. Lines which 

[ 66 ] 


were to form the core of his adult poetic voice and the basis of his 
greatest work, The Prelude. 

Energy and Memory 

In the small library dedicated to his work in Grasmere, 1 have 
actually held the surviving manuscript paper on which Wordsworth 
rapidly began to form The Prelude. It is redolent with discovery and 
excitement, verses crammed at all angles, in pen, pencil; long rows 
of words springing out of the ground of his memory. Looking at 
it, you see not only a personal breakthrough taking place, but the 
first shaping of our own contemporary appreciation of the natural 
world. There could be no Environmental Protection Agency, no 
Sierra Club, no Discovery Channel, no National Parks without the 
Wordsworths of this world who first began to move our lips again in 
reverence to and participation with the natural order. In Words- 
worth’s verses we are taught to see creation once again as a place to 
grow in, a place indicative of other worlds parallel to ours which 
necessarily put any single work we do as human beings into smaller 
and saner perspectives. 

Wordsworth’s absolute faith in physical memory and the ener- 
gies they represent is a testament to the way a deeply personal 
experience, given a work and a vessel to carry it, can speak to thou- 
sands of others and affect, in pivotal ways whole worlds and ways 
of thinking yet to be born. This is one of the great beauties of a 
private work made manifest in a very public world. Wordsworth, 
unknown to us, is in every conversation we have about the beauty 
of a mountain, a seascape, or a sky. Work at its best is the arrival in 

[ 67 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

an outer form of something intensely inner and personal; and the 
act of working itself — a bridge between the public and the private, 
a bridge of experience which can be an agony and an ecstasy to 

The Inner Template 
of Belonging 

To a child, the world is a beckoning horizon, and as Words- 
worth said, The Child is father of the Man (and we might add today 
mother of the Woman). Whatever particular horizons drew us as a 
child are the original patterns and templates of our adult belonging. 
They are clues as to how we find our measure of happiness and satis- 
faction in the world. My own nephew, despite his parents’ hopes for 
academic accomplishment, worships his uncle Michael’s ability to 
fix, clean, and set to right anything metallic or mechanical. One day 
he looked up from his schoolbooks at his mother and said in dreamy 
fashion, I just want to be driving around with my uncle Michael, 
with a big load of washing machines in the back.” His mother sud- 
denly knew her son as she had not before. His way in the world is 
already marked: He may become a mechanic or he may not, but 
whatever work he does, if he wants any measure of happiness, it will 
have to hold the qualities of the practical world of which he now 
dreams. It will have to do with the way things fit together, one to 
another, or the flow and satisfaction of physical things working 
right, or put right. Metals and wood, rubber and plastic, these are 
the objects of his love; already he is beginning, at twelve years old, 

I 6 S ] 


to build household furniture in his parents’ garage. The template of 
his childhood belonging is there for him to create his adult work. 1 
have witnessed the same love of flight and things that fly at the Boe- 
ing company — affections that began in many an engineer’s mind at 
a very young age. To betray these childhood intuitions is to betray 
our adult participation in a world which has been formed trom the 
clay of those early experiences and recognitions. 

But what if we have forgotten? Or find our original dreams and 
memories painful compared to our present life, and therefore too 
difficult to bring to mind? 

Wordsworth again. 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: 

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, 

Hath had else where its setting, 

And cometh from afar: 

Not in entire forgetfulness, 

And not in utter nakedness, 

But trailing clouds of glory do we come 
From God, who is our home: 

Heaven lies about us in our infancy! 

Shades of the prison-house begin to close 
Upon the growing Boy, 

But He beholds the light, and whence itfows, 

He sees it in his joy ; 

The Youth, who daily farther from the east 
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest, 

And by the vision splendid, 

[ 69 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

Is on his way attended; 

At length the Man perceives it die away, 

And fade into the light of common day. 

— “Intimations of Immortality from 
Recollections of Early Childhood” 

The poem is beautifully titled. Intimations of Immortality. Not 
one of us, despite millennia of theological investigation, really 
knows where we come from or where we go. We especially do not 
know how our daily work actually fits into that perspective, but 
most of us have intimations of some greater continuum of which 
we are a part. The intuition is a lifeline to a greater participation 
beyond our present work, beyond our present horizon. Without it 
our work finds no greater context. Remembering this life’s journey 
beyond our present daily commute is one of life’s great disciplines, 
but keeping it as a constant, inspiring companion is beyond most of 
our powers. Sooner or later we forget, we lose sight, we come to a 
place in our lives where the vision splendid begins to fade into the 
light of common day. 

Every person comes to a place, at one time or another in their 
maturation, of complete loss and deadness, a stark and frightening 
absence of creativity and enthusiasm, where life seems to retreat 
away from us like a tide. Our desperate grasping after the outgoing 
energy only marks our desperation more fully. The old magic seems 
to be ours no longer, and we look enviously at those still able to cre- 
ate it. This is the very point where deep physical memories are our 
lifeline to any future we want for ourselves. In effect, somewhere 
inside us, the child is still running enthusiastically toward a horizon 

[ 70 ] 


it once glimpsed. Our future life depends on finding this original 
directional movement in our lives, no matter how far we feel we are 
into middle age. It calls for a reinvestigation of the way we physi- 
cally inhabit the world. 

Saving Ourselves 

from Middle and Muddle 

The interesting thing about the crisis we often associate with 
middle age is that it is not confined to our lives after forty-five. 
A lost teenager can exhibit the same sense of drift, the same dark 
depression, and the same feeling of being walled off behind 
glass as any graying fifty-year-old. Just like the body of a man or 
woman encountering middle age, the teenager’s new body can 
also seem a new and uncontrollable force. Middle age is a cyclical 
visitation throughout our existence. We can experience an early 
middle-age crisis when we are in the midst of a project that needs 
desperately to be redefined or redrawn, or we can find middle age 
when we are only three months into a marriage, as trapped and des- 
perate as if we had been there for thirty years. We can find it staring 
out of a palatial hotel room when we don’t know why we are there 
or why the company is paying the outrageous bill. Any experience 
where the tide seems to have left us stranded is a good equivalent. 
The essence of midlife crisis is that something has to change but the 
person feels he no longer has the body, the will, or the energy to 
do it anymore. We look desperately for other bodies. Literally or 

1 7 1 ) 

David Whyte 

Looking In the Mirror 

In the luxurious restaurant, the expensively attired man in his 
late sixties looks sideways from the table and captures a glimpse in 
the mirrored wall of himself and his young companion haloed by 
candlelight. When he first looked he had a smile on his face, but 
now he is shocked to see what others must see: a beautiful, poised 
young woman in her twenties sitting with a very, very old man. Her 
smooth complexion a pale glowing expanse leaning close to the 
lined territory of his own. When she rises to go to the washroom, 
he looks again at himself in the mirror, smiles wryly, and admits he 
is making a fool of himself. When she returns, he has already con- 
signed his amorous ambitions to that capacious place where all our 
other strange notions go. For her part, she cannot understand why 
he suddenly seems to have lost interest. “Thank God I was given that 
glimpse of us both in the mirror,” he confided late one night to a 
friend. “I didn’t like what I could see.” 

Sometimes the body we want is metal and gleaming chrome. 
One Sunday afternoon sipping coffee in London, I looked into The 
Times newspaper and saw a classified advertisement for a magnifi- 
cent BMW 750cc. “Driven lor only six weeks through midlife cri- 
sis,” said the tongue-in-cheek description. Of course, no expense is 
too much for the middle-aged psyche in its external search for 
youth, and a BMW 750 is the least of it as far as looking for our lost 
external bodies. We have to fnarvel that it took the man only six 
short weeks to find that the glamorous mechanical body was not his 
own. The glorious roaring machine only a stepping-stone to a kind 
of deep, throaty energy the owner wanted in his own voice. 

There is another side to this: the fact that our sense of success in 

[ 72 ] 


life can imprison us as much as our sense of failure. We will often fight 
and starve a little for our work when we begin a given path. Our first 
courageous steps steel us for robust shocks to our system and help 
keep us on a steady course toward the life and work we want. But 
once we are successful, the forces that challenge and assail our 
integrity are far more subtle. There is nothing to rob the human spirit 
like the rewards of an upper-middle-class existence. The lawn, the 
financial commitments, the blurred pages of the up-market cata- 
logues slowly convince us that life is actually our appearance and that 
any desire, large or small, can be obtained through a toll-free number. 

Pretending to Be Alive 

We may do the same work and do it well, but we may do it well 
in a way that does not engage our deeper powers in any real conver- 
sation, so that we lose any sense of personal edge. We may be 
admired in our work, but the admiration blinds and insulates us from 
the loss of something robust and lifelike inside us. We are imperson- 
ating, but the impersonation is incredibly subtle because we are, in 
effect, impersonating ourselves. The surface life is a simulacrum of 
something we intuit inside ourselves but have not yet really brought 
to life from the depths. All the while we are slowly in retreat from 
our own frontier. We create a business around our success, and then 
the business and busyness of the outer world becomes a world unto 
itself. Late one night, we find ourselves going over our net worth in 
black ink again and again to make sure it is real, still there, still earn- 
ing the same interest. We need the reassurance that we can define a 
success at least somewhere in our lives; but the repeated lines of 

[ 73 ] 

David Whyte 

scribbled figures on the legal pad are a sure diagnostic feature that 
our identity is merging more and more with our bank account. If the 
nest egg were to disappear, we fret that we might disappear, too. 

In the decision to leave Galapagos, I was grappling with a 
midlife crisis come early. Not that I had much in the way of insulat- 
ing riches — my net worth was not in monetary terms. I had plenty 
of daily spending money but I had no savings. In that regard I was 
poor as a church mouse. My fixation was on the glamour of my life 
in the islands, different but equally obsessive. Where else could you 
wake to the sound of a fountaining whale’s breath through the wood 
skin of the boat, dive with seals and sharks, and generally live the 
bronzed life of intrepid adventurer with no bills, no taxes, no mort- 
gage, and all meals and wine found and provided? 

I thought of staying on, of course. It was hard to change a 
work that offered so much for a future work which was only just 
beginning to glimmer in my imagination. We all thought of staying 
on — a few guides actually did. But most of us knew we were in a 
kind of sweet, paradisiacal prison. A naturalist was not very well 
paid, but that might not have mattered if it had been possible to 
build the life into anything larger or more satisfying than continu- 
ally leading small groups of international visitors through the 
islands. More important, the traveling, moving life of a sailing natu- 
ralist guide could not sustain any long-term relationships or any 
decent private life. It was a work that ripened my powers of atten- 
tion to creation but stifled the integration of those powers into a 
mature life I could call my own. 

Not only that, but Galapagos had triggered deep memories of 
other horizons toward which I had run as a child: the horizon of 
poets and poetry I had loved since I first could read. After my excur- 

[ 74 ] 


sion into science, I was beginning to turn again to that memory. I 
needed it especially to live on the frontier to which the islands had 
brought me. In Galapagos, I had begun to form a philosophy of exis- 
tence that demanded a larger language than the scientific one I had 
concentrated on for the last few years. Scientific language, ironically 
enough, was not precise enough to describe my experience in those 
islands. In silent companionship with the life of the Galapagos, I had 
come to the conclusion that our personal identity, which we think is 
based upon our beliefs and opinions, is actually more of a function 
of our ability to pay attention to the world around us. If we had very 
little in the way of attention for the world, then we actually had 
little in the way of real existence. The deeper we could look into all 
those phenomena which seemed to be other than ourselves, the 
more a discreet identity we could call a self seemed to appear on 
life’s radar screen. Somewhere out there beyond the islands was 
another work and another life that would support those farther 

It was time to go, to take stock of what we had learned in this 
work and hold the unique experience like a second childhood mem- 
ory, another horizon to take us out into the world no matter how 
unwelcoming that world might seem. We knew that we had the 
place — like the salt seawater and the local parasites — in our blood, 
and we would take it with us long after the wheels had lifted from the 
tarmac of Baltra airport. Though what we would do after this sojourn 
in paradise, none of us knew. We had these sunlit hours, but after this, 
the imagination entered darkness. “What do we do after leaving 
Shangri La?” we guides would ask one another in the bars of Puerta 
Ayora, laughing and, an instant later, silent and deadly serious. 

It seems to me that this question waits in the shadow of every 

[ 75 ] 



successful life. A koan question for advanced Zen students is “How 
do you proceed from the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Once you 
reach a certain stage of mastery, the dangers increase exponentially. 
In any occupation where we have achieved a degree of competence, 
we imperceptibly begin to see ourselves as God’s gift to whatever 
world we have decided to occupy with our working bodies. 

Every path, no matter how diligently we follow it, can lead to 
staleness and ennui. We might reach dizzying heights in our organi- 
zation, occupy the top floor of any given building, or, as a zoologist, 
make it to the Galapagos islands, but if we lose our horizon and the 
excitement of that horizon, our high office or our storied islands 
can seem like a gilded cage. 


Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the 

But 1 never heard any noise or sound of builders. 

Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world. 


“Walls.” Translated by Rae Dalven 

Sometimes we have built the walls ourselves, but often it is 
simply the nature of things that walls that once served and sheltered 
us at certain periods of our life only imprison us when we have 
remained within their confines for too long. A work emboldens us 
for a while, and then, if we do not invigorate and reimagine our par- 
ticipation, it begins to enclose us and slowly starve our spirit. Good 

or done in the wrong way 

work done in the same way for too long, 

[ 76 ] 


for any amount of time, eats away our sense of being right with the 

Often, in order to stay alive, we have to unmake a living in 
order to get back to living the life we wanted for ourselves. It is this 
cycle of making, disintegration, and remaking that is the hallmark 
of meaningful and creative work. I think of singers like Bob Dylan 
or Van Morrison, shifting and reinventing themselves album after 
album. Yeats as a young poet in love with longing and journey, 
then, in his fierce maturity, writing about the difficulties of arrival. 
Picasso in his blue period, depicting simple human figures, poignant, 
marvelous paintings anyone would be glad to have done as the apex 
of their art, but all flowering into new season through his Cubist 
vision: eyes and limbs sprouting into a rich summer complexity. 
The canvas no longer a single dimension but cramming every angle 
at once into the enriched eye of the beholder. 

Keeping a Star in Sight 

The mainsail on the Encantada was huge. It took the entire 
crew and a little help from any willing passengers to heave it up, and 
it took a very stiff breeze to warrant heaving it anywhere but into a 
tight roll on the boom, which is where it almost always stayed. But 
now, half the sky was filled with this vast red sail, and in front of it, 
the two foresails were straining to hold the steady wind. Under this 
spread of canvas, the Encantada responded like a wakeful, living 
thing. I could feel the whole length of the ship alive in the wheel 
beneath my hands, alert to the least degree of movement. The 
Encantada had been brought to full life, and I felt exactly the same 

[ 77 ] 

David Whyte 

way. Looking back over the last eighteen months, I felt as if these 
islands had brought me to life, had filled my sails, and were bowling 
me on my way through the waves. 

Around me, the sky was beginning to darken, intensifying the 
red glow of the volcano reflected in our wake, but in the sliver of 
clear sky to which the bow was pointed, I could see the first stars 
beginning to appear above the dark blue horizon. 1 realized that I 
was pointing the Encantada toward home and, emboldened by the 
elements around me, felt that even though I had not the least idea 
where that new home would be, there was some equivalent star in 
the heavens to make that navigation. I thought of the old Latin root 
of the word desire, meaning de sider, oj the stars. To have a desire in life 
literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a bea- 
con, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some- 
place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that 
is particularly our own; it might disappear for a while, but when the 
skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer. 

In our youth, we set off running toward our work like the 
child seeing that new horizon across the fields. In my case, inspired 
by Cousteau, we might begin to ask our ourselves what we need to 
do to study marine zoology. At the beginning we run toward it, but 
we find very quickly that the entire journey demands a more meas- 
ured pace, and a perseverance we can only learn in the pilgrimage 
itself. When this night of difficulty falls, we look for a star to hold us 
to our darkened course. 1 had no idea of the long hours of species 
identification ahead of me, the midnight wrestling with the bio- 
chemical mysteries of the Krebs cycle, the cathedral hush of the 
examination halls at Bangor University, the trying interview 
process for the job as a naturalist guide. I often think that if we really 

[ 78 ] 


knew what territory lay ahead of us and what we might have to put 
ourselves through to achieve the work we desire, we would proba- 
bly lock ourselves in a padded room and refuse to emerge. The 
presence of the star does not excuse us from the difficult territory 
through which it is guiding us. It hadn’t been long before I realized 
that in order to follow marine biology I had to drop all my beloved 
art subjects in high school and put myself into the deep salt mines of 
biology, chemistry, and physics. The path was hard, but the horizon 
and the star above it must have been real to me, and I did reach 
it eventually. This day under the volcano on the fiery stern of the 
Encantada, I had finally reached that distant horizon to which I 
had been aiming. Everything I had wanted in those tiny images on 
our television set had come true for me. In the vitality of this last 
voyage through the islands, I could see the unique, almost unspeak- 
able nature of my time in Galapagos: a frontier brush with the natu- 
ral world that was unfathomable, indescribable, and unrepeatable. 

After a year navigating under those tropical skies I found the 
old human intuition of a star in the heavens whose journey is a tem- 
plate of our own individual path on earth, quite believable. Some 
nights alone on watch, when the horizon between the phosphores- 
cent sea and the night sky had merged, 1 felt as if, with a slight nudge 
of the rudder, the Encantada could simply carry on, like an image 
from a child’s book, into the infinity of stars ahead. But exactly 
because of this experience of arrival, my ambition had finally with- 
ered in the actual experience of achieving my goal. Surrounded by 
the otherworldly miracle of Galapagos, which was actually the real 
world in too concentrated a form for the human frame to stand, 
ambition had come to feel less liberating, more confining, bereft of 
revelation, more like an artificial light I had shone across the water 

[ 79 ] 

David Whyte 

myself; you could direct the beam of ambition to help you see the 
immediate territory ahead but it would ultimately only illuminate 
things that were already known to you, and its glare would just as 
likely rob you of your peripheral night vision. Ambition kills our 
sense of the miraculous; ambition, ironically, could hide the stars. 

Ambition also lacked surprise, it lacked a sense of belonging 
to the territory through which we travel, and it lacked a sense of the 
greater story of which we are a part. It lacked completely the 
understanding that no matter the self-conceited importance of our 
work, at the end of our lives we are compost for worlds we cannot 
yet imagine. Ambition takes us toward a horizon but not over it — 
that line would always recede before our reaching hands. But desire 
is a conversation between our physical bodies, our work, our imagi- 
nations, and new worlds that is the territory we seek. Ambition 
takes willpower and constant applications of energy to stay on a 
perceived bearing; desire demands only a constant attention to the 
unknown gravitational held which surrounds us and from which we 
can recharge ourselves every moment, as if breathing from the 
atmosphere of possibility itself. A life’s work is not a series of step- 
ping-stones onto which we calmly place our feet, but more like an 
ocean crossing where there is no path, only a heading, a direction, 
which, of itself, is in conversation with the elements. Looking back 
for a sense of reference, we see the wake we have left as only a brief, 
glimmering trace on the waters. 

Years later, I recalled on that exuberant evening like a wake in 
my memory, the young man in the breeze under the clouded vol- 
cano, standing by the wheel that evening on his last voyage through 
the islands, pointing the Encantada toward a low, clear horizon of 
stars, and wrote this for him. 

[ * o ] 


But still, on the ocean, there is 
no path 

only the needle’s trembling dance 

. . .followed 
without fear, 

though the dance now is fear 
and calmness 
in one movement 


as you look 

not only the angry sea 
of what you 
have denied 



near at hand, 
in the center 
of your body, 

the rose-fre 
of the compass 
with direction. 

t * 1 ] 


Out of Ireland: 

A Short Sea Crossing 

When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after 
one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced 
the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But 
then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a 
kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love. 

— I ris Murdoch 
Under the Net 

The young woman put her head into her hands and looked over the 
railing of the ferry, watching the gray horizons of Ireland fading to a 
long, drawn, pencil line on the sea. Now that she was over the first 
excitement of getting to Dublin and onto the boat, she was thinking 
back three years, to the real beginning of this journey and the night 
when her world had changed forever. Surely, she said to herself, she 
could never have left if I hadn ’t lost her; if she hadn 't gone and left me, gone 
off into that darkness and lft us all to fend for ourselves. The realization 
intensified the cold sea wind and the taste of salt spray more sharply, 
and she pulled the collar of her coat together and looked into the 
wind. She looked out from the ship’s rail above the angry surface of 
the water and felt the competing tides inside her, the loss of home 
tugging her to go back, the sheer aloneness of it all, and over it, the 

[ 82 ] 


exhilaration of leave-taking carrying her on, flooding through her 
sadness, pulling her over the sea to find good work, to England. 

She remembered how everything on that night had started in 
such a warm and loving way. She had been twelve years old, dressed 
at last and steeled to go out the door despite her misgivings. She 
went to her mother’s bedside in the dim, evening light. She didn’t 
want to go out to the hall, she didn’t feel she had a breath of a song 
inside her, but her mother wanted her to, and wanted her to sing. 
She held her mother’s hand and told her she didn’t want to leave 
her, she wanted to stay by her side, talking to her at the bedside. As 
the memories flooded through her, she looked down at the gray 
surging waves combing into whiteness. She hadn’t wanted to go, 
but her mother had insisted that she dress and go and sing. Her 
mother had told her, as she stretched up to kiss her, that she had the 
loveliest voice in Waterford City, that her daughter would carry the 
competition and there would be none to match her. 

She had gone, not wanting to leave that bedside and that voice, 
but once she stood on the stage in front of the hushed crowd, she 
thought of her mother’s confidence and the tiny room where she 
had left her, and began to sing A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing. It was an 
old familiar, perhaps too familiar, song, but in her absolute state of 
sincerity, the worn familiarity was turned into a solid rope of new 
gold. She carried the night, and her heart was fit to burst with possi- 
bility when she lifted the shield. Perhaps it would stop everything 
that seemed to be coming toward her; perhaps it might turn every- 
thing away from her mother. She was brimming with joy and burst- 
ing to go home and cheer up her sick mother and the house. She 
remembered the stunned silence in the hall as she finished. She sang 

[ 83 ] 

David Whyte 

it because her mother was sick, and because she had told her 
mother she would, and it had won the night by acclamation. She left 
to go as soon as she could, and she hurried home, but her mother 
had died while she was singing. She returned to a house of grieving, 
and she had her sister, three brothers, and a father to do it with, but 
no mother, and now, no voice. She had wanted to sing for a living, 
but now that was all gone, She would never sing like that again, for 

She hadn’t been by her mother when she died. She was away 
singing, but she bad, but she had not — but she had, with her voice and 
her spirit — but mostly she was gone, and her breath and her tears 
and her panic at the loneliness of a world without a mother had 
almost overwhelmed her. Twelve years old, she wanted to run 
through the night, and still a part of her, over fifty years later, is run- 
ning through that darkness still. I know that part of her well, 
because this young woman became my mother. 

1 know another part of her, too, that took the edge of that loss 
and sharpened it into an extraordinary compassion for others, an 
innate ability to sense loss and exile from the merest word or ges- 
ture. From a look or a silence. She never sang A Mother’s Love Is a 
Blessing again in the whole of my growing, even though my sisters 
and I would ask her for it. “Go on, Mum, sing it now,” we would say 
whenever we heard again the troubled story. But though she 
wouldn’t sing, there was another sweet voice descanting behind her, 
an understanding of the way, no matter our successes, the world 
orphans each of us in turn. All through her life and the hard work of 
her life, she has shown a generous hospitality through the right 
word at the right time, for those without a sense of a home, a work, 
or a family in the world . 

18 4 ) 


I vividly remember my sister’s wedding. The meal being fin- 
ished, my new brother-in-law rose to the occasion with glass in 
hand and, not known in his Yorkshire way for fine displays of senti- 
ment or flights of praise, surprised us all by giving a moving and 
tender account of what he was gaining in this marriage. He took 
time to outline this woman’s virtues; the difference she had made in 
his life, her tenderness, her care and compassion, and her willing- 
ness to invite him into her family. He started to tear up at the edges 
of sentences, his eyes moistening into a distant focus, barely held it 
together to the end of the speech, and sat down amidst thunderous 
applause with half the audience, including myself, in tears with him. 
The remarkable thing about this speech was that it was not spoken 
in celebration of my sister, his new wife, wonderful woman that she 
is. No, no, no. It was about Mary Theresa O’Sullivan, my mother, 
the young girl singing on the night of her mother’s passing, looking 
out from the railing, sailing for England and now settled, after a life- 
time of work, with three children in Yorkshire, and now, at last, be- 
coming his new mother-in-law. My mother, through all her losses, 
has had that effect on people. 

Out of Ireland 

I always feel the Yorkshire landscape of my childhood building 
before my eyes as I think about the inheritance of work, the mill 
chimneys standing against valley and moor, but there was another 
landscape and inheritance equally strong that breathed life into that 
vision of factory and field. The other half of my understanding of 
work and ambition was placed in a more imaginative realm by the 

t « 5 1 

David Whyte 

influence of the young girl who had fled Ireland. She had left a 
motherless house and the gray and promiseless landscapes of post- 
war Ireland. Her inheritance was half of me, and it was the Irish in 
me that looked into my practical Yorkshire work world through a 
veil. On the other side of that veil was some kind of unarticulated 
and timeless friendship with loss and exile, with a shape-shifting 
world once a birthright of ancient but vague royalty from which we 
were all descended, now forgotten. All Irish, my mother would say 
with a laugh, were descended from kings — which, having looked 
into the matter since, is probably accurate, as it didn’t take a great 
deal of land nor a great number of cows, to give their owners the 
grand title in ancient Ireland. But as children, this ever-present past 
gracing our humdrum working-class present seemed to create an 
invisible otherness in our growing. 

This royal line felt like a thread of imaginative divinity run 
through our present accidental fetching up in a working-class York- 
shire household, as if in the details of everyday labor there was 
always some other world to remember. No matter how hard every- 
one had to work, there was an understanding that our place in 
the solid world is separated in only gossamer ways from greater 
and more eternal stories. In an Irish telling, like the telling of my 
mother’s story, everything is ultimately experienced through 
terrible grief and loss. It is the one left singing, and the flight of song 
in the midst of that grief, that counts. 

In my mother’s youth, young Irish people, following an old 
migratory pattern familiar since the famine, left their families and 
emigrated all over the world. They were looking for work and I 
think also a freedom from the dead hand of postwar Ireland. Ironi- 
cally, the nearest place at hand was its old enemy, England, just a bus 

\ 8 6 \ 


ride to Dublin and a boat ride across the Irish Sea. Prostrate as 
England was after the Second World War, it still had the ability to 
lure young women such as my mother to work in its grim factories 
and mills. “The bright lights,” they would call it, and imagine it, 
before the disappointed shock of gray arrival. But any work was 
work, and any work that gave a modicum of independence to a con- 
strained Catholic girl was a powerful magnet. 

I shudder at the thought of that young woman in the gray, 
cold, bone-damp mornings of early- 1950s Yorkshire. Few dances of 
a Saturday night, little music, food still rationed from the war, and 
her inherited lightness of tongue confronted by the stolid if friendly 
vowel sounds of Yorkshire dialect. Young was certainly the word to 
use — my mother was only fifteen, a scant three years from her 
mother’s death, when she left to cross the water. After a long day’s 
work in the woolen mills, she would still go and play in the local 
park like the young girl she was. I think of my own daughter’s face 
with rising emotion when I remember my mother’s story, how she 
had borrowed her sixteen-year-old sister’s passport to leave her 
father’s house. 

My grandfather, in his grief at the prospect of her leaving him 
at such a young age, found and then hid the passport, fetching it out 
from behind a picture only after a night of weeping and pleading 
from his distraught daughter. Forty years later, the very day before 
that cottage was demolished, I leaned into the small room through 
the empty window frame and peered into the darkness. My mother 
pointed over my shoulder into the gloom to where the passport had 
stood on the mantle above the fire, and then to the chair in front of 
that fire where my grandfather had plunged a knife into the seat in 
grief and helplessness. I felt as if the knife were still upright in the 

1 « 7 ] 

David Whyte 

room, quivering with all the displaced power of the dispossessed. 
The story is so Irish 1 want to weep myself at the thought of it — the 
effervescent, temporary power ol leave-taking and the powerless- 
ness of those left behind. 

Fighting for a Living 

For all the powerlessness of my grandfather in that moment, 
many of the O’Sullivan men on my mother’s side were fighters and 
boxers. If I ever think that a life of speaking and reading on the road 
is a little tough, I have only to think of my great-grandfather who 
went from village to village in his youth, fighting local challengers 
for cash. The battering I take in the airport must count as nothing to 
the grim determination he must have needed. He faced an inex- 
haustible supply of young men appearing every day out of nowhere 
and determined, literally, to make their mark in the world. 

Two of my mother’s other brothers were boxers and fought 
regularly in the ring. My uncle John even appeared on television 
when I was a child. I knew early on, and quite literally, that you 
might have to fight for your living. I remember my uncle John on his 
surprise visits to the house, bobbing and weaving above my young 
head as he took the time to show me the boxer’s crouch. My small 
dukes circled forever in front of his huge, intent face, but I was too 
mesmerized and worshipful ever to think of landing a blow. His 
godlike presence was a great inspiration to a young would-be tough 
guy. Part of me is still looking up, wondering whether 1 could ever 
have the temerity to take my chance. 

t « * I 


But sacrosanct as his own image is to me, he did teach me to 
love a good fight. The O’Sullivan in me may explain why I enjoy 
robust verbal encounters. The thrust and parry of argument, the 
stiletto jab of truth finally slipping beneath the unguarded verbal 
defense. It’s not my normal mode of working, but there is a certain 
zest to that sudden threshold encounter. You suddenly know, in the 
midst of the verbal fight, that whatever is said in the heat of it can 
make or break everything, like a worthwhile marital argument, into 
something new and useful and revelatory. Many a time I have felt 
my uncle John very close to me over the years, looking over his 
gloves, urging me on in rough situations. 

I do remember one work fight that began with an insult, a 
direct insult from a manager at a very large company. I was shocked 
at what he called me, and so was the rest of the room. It’s a rare 
moment in any organization when someone picks a very public fight 
in a very public place and in such a vehement way. It was a moment 
of truth. The man was not only attacking me but the whole educa- 
tional initiative within the company of which I was a part. 

There was a lovely, important silence in the room when it 
happened. It was right at the end of the session, and many of the 
participants, though making a show of gathering their things to 
leave, were absolutely riveted as to the outcome and listening to 
find out just which way the current would go. You could also sense 
that a number were holding their breaths, wondering whether to 
follow him in turning against the course. It was perfect, really — 
one of the inherited difficulties in this organization was a lack of 
clear confrontation, a lack they said they were beginning to tackle. 
As a manager, you expected to be humiliated at one time or another 


David W h 

y t e 

by those who had seniority over you. The humiliation would then be 
“forgotten” and glossed over, so long as you remembered, of course, 
the underlying lesson. 

I do believe in dignity and the preservation of personal honor. 
I believe in dignity; not in dignity’s old shadow of puffery and self 
importance, but in its power to keep us true to our own spirit. With 
dignity comes honesty and an unwillingness to sell yourself short, 
to temporize or collude in cowardly ways that may preserve our 
jobs but not our honor. There are certain things we should not do, 
certain people we should not work for, lines we should not cross, 
conversations to which we should not descend, money we should 
not earn however easily it may come, things we should not allow 
ourselves to be called in public. 

I didn’t work for him and I wasn’t beholden, and I felt my 
O’Sullivan dukes going up. I didn’t insult him and 1 didn’t belittle 
him, but in very short order he didn’t care for my uncompromising 
reply, nor for a few sharp, stinging, and very satisfying knuckle-hard 
observations with my left while he was mesmerized with my more 
diplomatic right. I asked him why he wasn’t prepared to ask some 
serious questions of my work in the session instead of ducking the 
issue and trying to humiliate me. He ignored me and turned to 
leave. I said he couldn’t leave, he had called me a very bad name and 
now we had a relationship (definitely Irish humor). Also, what was 
he doing wasting his valuable time as a senior executive, only half 
participating in a program that was supposed to be voluntary? He 
stopped, and looked a little shocked. 1 wasn’t playing the game of 
hierarchical acquiescence. In the background, I heard some interior 
voice humming the first line of an old Irish triad: “Death to mock a 


poet . . . 

[ 90 ] 


Somewhere else in the background, my uncle John was cir- 
cling, eyes bobbing behind the red gloves, jabbing and feinting. He 
was indicating the right glove, winking, and telling me to move in 
and give him a belting. After a while, under sustained hammering 
questions, he retreated down the corridor, but I followed him, 
inviting him to a real and respectable conversation on the matter. I 
wasn’t sure who’d be out of the program, him or me, but an honest 
conversation seemed much more important than the outcome, and 
my blood was up. A whole crowd of managers followed us on their 
way to lunch. But our belligerent and bullying manager took flight, 
both in the encounter and, literally, next morning, from the build- 
ing. He left the seminar; then, shortly after that, he left the com- 
pany. I remember mostly regrets, wishing the confrontation had 
brought us to more of an understanding. But it was all for the best in 
the end for everyone else’s participation. Certainly, from his point 
of view, he wasn’t wasting his time any longer. 

Afterward, a strange compliment came my way, which em- 
barrassed me at first but which 1 later realized was a kind of Oscar 
nomination in corporate America. There were really two compli- 
ments. The first compliment was the refreshing enthusiasm for the 
course by those attending in succeeding months, who had heard of 
the encounter and who seemed to feel some old, tiresome, miasmic 
spell had been broken. It seemed to be a signal that there was some- 
thing real about the seminar, something in earnest about the change 
effort. But a second compliment came more strangely to my ears, 
when I heard a warning circulating around the company, spoken 
earnestly to those about to join the course. The first time 1 heard the 
warning was in the following month. I said to a colleague after my 
seminar, “They seemed extraordinarily attentive this time.” 

[ 91 ] 

David Whyte 

“Whatever you do,” he said, looking sideways at me, “don’tj - — 
with the poet.” Then he put back his head and broke into laughter. 
“Don’t what ?” I said, and asked him for an explanation. This was the 
advice in the executive suites for those signing up for the next 
month’s course. I was shocked, but then I had to laugh, too. After- 
ward, I felt a strange glow equal to that of seeing a book I’d written, 
long in the writing, out in the world for the first time. Don’tj '- — with 
the poet, I said to myself repeatedly in some satisfaction as I drove 
away. I could almost see it in neon, emblazoned above the company 
production lines. 

You could also say, “ Don’tj - — with the imagination,” or with the 
one life we’ve been given, or with the gritty inheritance of our own 
ancestry, which we bring unknowingly to our work every day 
and whose ancient lineaments of belonging, poetrv is constantly 
attempting to articulate. There is too much at stake, and we repre- 
sent too long a lineage of lives lived and half lived who are cheering 
us on. Our work is a measure not only of our own lives but of all 
those who came before us and created the world we inherit. I hope 
they did not labor, starve, bear innumerable children, nor cross 
oceans to make a new life so we could give it all up in the promised 
land by some bland acquiescence to corporate career safety. I, for 
myself, remember the image of my uncle John, hovering over me, 
his dark O’Sullivan eyes emerging from above the gloves now and 
again, in effect, telling me not to be afraid of losing a fight. It is the 
dignity we keep, win or lose, which ennobles the confrontation. 
There he was, the latest of a long line of fighting Irish, transplanted 
invisibly into a corporate seminar room in North America to help 
me in an hour of peril. God love him. We need a few more of him. 

[ 92 ] 


The Hopes of Our Ancestors 

Each of us has some kind of tenacious family ancestry to call 
on in our work. No matter the glass and steel look of our office, 
somewhere in each of our backgrounds lies a layered, gritty com- 
plexity, an inheritance of people who came through. Life is too dif- 
ficult to survive without tenacity and perseverance, and we all hold 
an unbroken thread of survivorship by the very fact that we are 
here, the latest in a very long line of survivors. Some of our ances- 
tors were dogged, silent, and inarticulate in their holding on, some 
courageously outspoken, but imagine their disappointment in each 
of us, looking from the perspective of the particular heavens they 
inhabit, when we do not take another step for them. When we do 
not make a frontier of our own lives. If they were quiet in their own 
lives, they must want us to speak out; if they were loud and vocifer- 
ous, they must want us to be more tempered and wiser with the 
fire, but none of them, surely, can stomach our willingness to hide 
ourselves in a bland compliance to powers or careers to which we 
have made ourselves slaves. 

In my own ancestry, 1 descend, on both sides of my family, 
from a long line of the oppressed, dispossessed and marginalized, 
especially on the Irish, Scot, and Yorkshire side of my family, many 
of whom would be astounded to see the princely luxury and possi- 
bility of my contemporary life. I am but one generation away from 
this inheritance. Yet I do not see for their part, looking at their lives 
as prizefighters, fisherfolk and field laborers, any less of a sense of 
belonging to the world. They were simply joined to the conversa- 
tion through the medium of want and difficulty. This want did not in 

[ 9 i ] 

David Whyte 

any way reduce their rich inheritance of song, story, dialect and 
humor. 1 am, for my part, still trying to live up to a legacy they 
bestowed which is the fabric of my own life. My own struggle is to 
ensure that my present riches do not deracinate this gritty, ancestral 
and intuitive struggle. 

The Boundaries of Personal Power 

When we are young, we imagine that we are doing everything 
ourselves. We have our work because we deserve it. We believe that 
we generate our own opportunities, our own luck, our own 
unstoppable bodies. There must be something to this, we intuit, 
that our fate varies according to those powers of attention which we 
bring to the frontiers of our young lives. But as we grow older, we 
grow wiser as to the extent of those powers; there is another, pro- 
founder way, in which we are dependent not only in invisible ways 
on the inheritance of others but literally and physically on what we 
have been given by those who have gone before us. 

Helping Hands 

We would stand barely a chance in the world if we did not rely 
from cradle to grave on what has been handed down from those 
who have lived and worked before us. From agriculture to health 
care, from education to sanitation, we are the recipients of genera- 
tions of toil. I think of Richard Thorpe in 1667, founding Mirfield 

[ 94 ] 


Grammar School ‘Jor fifteen poor children,” a place whose doors I 
entered 300 years later at eleven years old, and where I was lucky 
enough to meet teachers both passionate and rigorous about what it 
meant to be a live, educated human being. I think of the library in 
Mirfield, a product of boring Victorian good works, but the scene of 
my first passionate encounter with real literature. Under a high 
shelf, I reached up tiptoe and pulled down my first book of adult 
poetry. Reading it, I felt as if 1 had been plucked from the ground by 
a passing hawk. A staid, century-old charitable contribution work- 
ing its way like a wild animal into the intensity of my young life. 
Someone’s fleeting image of a future world finding a nest in my 
growing imagination. 

Sooner or later we admit that we cannot do it all, that what- 
ever our contribution, the story is much larger and longer than our 
own, and we are all in the gift of older stories that we are only now 
joining. Whatever our success at work, in the financial markets, or 
in the virtual worlds now being born, we are all in the gift of much 
older work, we are all looked after by other eyes, and we are only 
preparing ourselves for an invitation to join something larger. 

At my birth, unknown to me, I joined the story of the young 
woman leaning on the ship rail, leaving the shores of Ireland at a 
mere fifteen. But I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties in 
a self-centered, invulnerable boy-god phase, sure I was master of 
the universe in which I lived. No one had come before me, no one 
would come after me, and 1 was certain that I was sole generator of 
my work, my gifts and my luck. My mother would be left far behind 
in my glorious wake and surely now could be no real contributor to 
a young warrior’s prowess in the work and the world he had chosen 
for himself. 


David Whyte 

Invulnerability and Inheritance 

This delusion of self-sufficiency came to an end in my mid- 
twenties. Firstly, with a humbling experience at a broken foot- 
bridge in the high Himalayas; secondly by a raging, hallucinatory 
bout of amebic dysentery a little farther along that mountain path; 
but thirdly, finally and thoroughly, sitting in an armchair back in 
Yorkshire, sipping a late-night whiskey with my mother. All the rev- 
elations of the Himalayas had only filled my cup to the very brim. It 
was my mother’s words dropping from nowhere that filled it to 

Looking back, I remember it as a particularly haunting mo- 
ment. I mean, mothers are not something to which a young man 
gives much thought in his work life, especially if his work takes him 
out in to the world in a venturesome way, and I had been venturing 
with a full, young, and masculine vengeance: rock climbing, ice 
climbing, sailing, traveling, and working on a shoestring budget 
through all the byways of the world. I had come through any num- 
ber of near scrapes, had been attacked, shot at, or set on by dogs in 
all the best places and had always emerged breathless, a little bat- 
tered, but triumphant. One near-fatal event would follow another, 
and I began to see myself like one of Napoleon’s favored generals, 
except God was my supreme commander, someone who had 
bestowed upon me, rightfully, more than my share of luck. 

In the midst of all this good luck, and seemingly far from my 
mother, a near drowning in the Galapagos Islands shook me to the 
core but in some ways also confirmed my idea of personal invulner- 
ability. I had emerged like all the other times, rocked back on my 

[ 96 ] 


heels but fully alive, and with another tale to mark my divinely 
ordained, youthful presence in the world. 

The backdrop to the story was dramatic: an amphitheater of 
rock and sea on a wild, lonely, wave drenched hunk of rock on the 
southern edge of the Galapagos named Hood Island. Imagine an 
enormous lava cliff with the southern ocean rolling huge breakers 
against its base. Imagine small, black, dragonlike lizards known as 
marine iguanas, riding those waves, and when the waves recede, see 
them clinging in an impossible way to the rock face. Imagine the air 
filled with the cries of sea birds and sea lions, and imagine you hear, 
every so often, a huge roaring sound from a rock platform below 
the cliff, where the waves tear up through a deep crack in the liv- 
ing rock. 

It was in this place, far from my mother in her armchair, that I 
came to lead Matt Downing, fellow naturalist guide, and former 
citizen of the safer regions of Upstate New York, from the paths of 
guiding righteousness and into the paths of a near death experience. 
Matt and I were on top of those cliffs, the southern edge of the most 
southerly island in the chain, staring at the vast sway of the sea that 
stretches southward for several thousand miles to the Antarctic ice 
shelf. Here, the northward fetch of the sea flowing up from those 
frozen latitudes at last greets something solid and dense in an angry 
series of waves exploding against the cliffs below. If you let your 
imagination run over the enormous lonely ocean stretching to the 
limitless south, this could be a very frightening place for lurid con- 
templation. Particularly if you thought of the New Zealand boat 
catastrophically lost just a few years previously. They hit these 
southern cliffs in the middle of the night and their boat had broken 

[ 97 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

apart in moments. It would have taken just a few seconds, I imag- 
ine, their vessel shattered and lost in the maelstrom created by the 
sea meeting the cliffs beneath us. 

You could imagine it all right, how it could have happened. 
They had rounded the Horn 5,000 miles to the south, left the coast 
of Chile, and sailed the long northward Humbolt current, day after 
day, night after night, until they believed somewhere inside them 
that the ocean was limitless and land a mere aberration. An island 
surely an unlikely event that they would approach only in full day- 
light as if in a dream. Their reckoning might be slightly out, their 
vigilance diminished. Perhaps in foul weather they could not see or 
feel the loom of the island, the sound of the waves on the cliff lost in 
the general tumult, until the great dark mass was all around them. 

Whatever the story, I could never look from this cliff without 
thinking of their fateful last moments. Surprised by the violence of 
it all, the hard, lacerating rocks, the cold, rushing saltwater, they 
were soon in the calm oblivion that awaits us all, which, despite 
the attempts of the religious imagination, we still know nothing 
about. When I stood on that equatorial cliff, I felt as if 1 were on the 
frontier between north and south, life and death, substance and 

Setting the Scene: The Albatross 

North and south, life and death, substance and nothingness; 
there is one particularly magnificent creature who inhabits this 
exhilarating frontier between all those points. Hood Island is the 
chief nesting place of the waved albatross, a creature with an ever- 

[9 8 \ 


lasting eight-foot wingspan which can stay aloft in the air for days or 
weeks at a time. If you want an image of tireless, effortless work, it 
would be this white creature, yellow-beaked, skimming the surfaces 
of the southern ocean, plucking hsh from the crests of waves, alive 
to the enormous sway and swing of the fluid medium racing beneath 
it. One moment seen at the top of a cliff of waves, the next in the pit 
between them. When it does eventually come to land, it finds its 
way here, to Hood Island, to breed and to hsh for the young that are 
hatched. Every March, the waved albatross congregate in their 
thousands on the cliff top, clashing their beaks together in a ritual of 
recognition and courtship, then they lay their eggs promiscuously in 
the open, rolling them around every now and again from place to 
place. There is a raffish edge to the albatross, a kind of devil-may- 
care involvement at the edge of things that is both amusing and 
breathtaking. It reaches a climax when the young come to fly. For 
weeks after hatching, the young albatross resemble great balls of 
fluff, their juvenile down permitting only their beaks and feet to jut 
out from the white mass that engulfs them. Then, as they molt, the 
shape of the bird emerges, ungainly but clearly an albatross. 

What happens next is all of a piece with my story and my 
theme of work, and at the time seemed to give me a frightening 
glimpse into the subterranean life-and-death urgencies of Galapa- 
gos. The place continuously brought to the surface the merciless 
dynamics of life seemingly larger than any human morality. I might 
have been working in those islands but the islands themselves were 
working to some other, more frightening order. Every day in those 
islands, I glimpsed things I might have preferred to forget. In this 
case, the invulnerable flight of the albatross across the perilous 
waves emerged from an earlier and more frightening vulnerability. 



David W h 

y 1 e 

Though the albatross is untouchable in its flight once launched into 
the wind, it has a very hard time actually getting off and away in the 
air due to its weight and size. It needs either a good breeze to lift it 
from the chop or a large cliff from which to propel itself. For the 
young albatross coming to maturity, the only way into the air was 
over the huge cliff that lay to one side of where they had hatched. 
Every one of the thousands of albatross chicks had but one chance in 
their short lives to learn to fly. 

It was heart-stopping to watch the rotund birds stagger 
toward that abyss, slowly pick up speed, and then suddenly stop 
themselves at the edge, practicing for the fateful launch. I would see 
them, day after day, lumbering back away from the cliff, their heads 
swaying purposefully and distinctively from side to side. Some inner 
evolutionary conviction pushing them into this all-or-nothing leap. 

I remember looking down from that cliff one still day without 
a breath of wind in the air, a day, unfortunately, the growing birds 
had responded to some inner urgency to try at last. All along the 
bottom of the cliff lay the bodies of young albatross I had seen come 
to maturity in the previous months. All that growing come to noth- 
ing. The nesting areas now silent and empty of familiar birds 1 had 
come to recognize despite their fluffy anonymity. Without the help 
of a breeze, they had not cleared the rocks below and their white 
bodies had smashed into the jutting lava, littering the whole length 
of the shoreline. White ragged piles on the black lava. A few, a very 
few, had made it; they were floating with their elders out on the 
waves, survivors who would carry their skills into the limitless 
ocean. In their bodies were hidden the wellsprings of talent that 
would flood into the next generation. It was a fierce but exhilarating 
sight, one that would make me, nevertheless, question God’s way of 

[ I 0 0 ] 


going about things. You had to ask yourself what equivalent, seem- 
ingly merciless urgencies, informed our own human world. 

The Blowhole 

At one point beneath that cliff lay the large platform of lava 
rock. A ramp in the cliff led down onto the platform, and if you fol- 
lowed it you could get a close look at the frightening undercut cliff 
below. It also led you to the source of the regular roaring sound, a 
roaring you could hear the whole length of the shoreline. A huge, 
curving crack snaked in from the edge of the cliff for twenty feet; 
beneath this, the full fury of the ocean would concentrate before 
spraying up through the opening to a height of about thirty or forty 
feet above the platform. The whole effect was like witnessing Yel 
lowstone’s famous geyser, Old Faithful. There was even a similar 
shape to the plume and a similar comforting regularity. As a guide, I 
would take people to see this blowhole, and more often than not 1 
would stand near the edge of the crack and take a saltwater shower 
under the falling plume, while the group I was leading clicked mer- 
rily away, capturing the moment for their slide shows. I had done 
this for months, and I was sure it had helped increase the generosity 
of the group when, at journey’s end, they held a collection for the 
guide’s deserving tip. 

In this spirit 1 persuaded my fellow guide, Matt, to join me at 
the edge of the blowhole. He was a little hesitant, but soon joined in 
the exhilaration of being showered by the scattered tons of water 
falling on us from a great height. I remember seeing the photo- 
graphs many weeks later, taken by the watching group one moment 

[10 1 ] 

David Whyte 

before disaster struck. There we are, framed forever, having all the 
fun in the world. But beneath us, off camera, in the midst of the fun, 
the water suddenly disappeared. There was an eerie moment as we 
watched the water gurgle away down the crack and then waited for 
it to surge back again. It did not. The water went away and stayed 
away. Something was wrong. 1 looked out to the sea below. There 
the ocean was curling itself up into the most frightful, pent-up 
tsunami of water. I grabbed Matt’s arm and shouted, “God 
Almighty!” We barely had time to turn away when the mighty surge 
barreling back up the crack was overtaken by the huge wave itself 
rolling over the top of the cliff. Caught in the maelstrom, I remem- 
ber trying to keep my feet up in front of me, because there was a 
twelve -foot rock step in the platform against which we were being 
flung. I didn’t want to hit it head-first. My arm had been loosed 
from Matt’s, and he was off, disappearing into the surging nothing- 
ness. I hit the lava wall feet-first, thank God, and then we were 
dragged back by the force of the ebbing water over the platform to 
the very edge of the cliff. The next image offered to the eyes of our 
watching group was myself, gripping the edge of the blowhole, my 
feet hanging down into its mouth as if into some engulfing creature, 
scrambling to stay out of its throat. Beyond me, Matt hung off the 
edge of the cliff itself, his feet swinging wildly for purchase. The 
next wave hit us like a hammer blow. This time there was no keep- 
ing my feet in any direction. In the savage onslaught I was somer- 
saulted toward the step, over and over. I could almost feel the 
coming concussion. It never came; the second wave was so huge 
that it took me right over the top of the lava step. I surged forward, 
banging against the rocks, until I reached the awestruck group, 

[10 2 ] 


where I was left at their feet by the retreating water, lacerated and 

1 remember looking up into the horrified faces and thinking in 
an abstract way that this performance should merit a very large tip. 
The thought crumpled immediately in the shock and realization of 
my banged-up state. I was also desperate for a sight of Matt. I 
looked along the platform. There he was. Thankfully, he had cleared 
the step and lay about thirty feet away, blood running down his hack 
and arms. We were taken hurriedly back to the landing place, Matt 
evacuated to his mother ship, deliriously asking if anyone got the 
number of the truck that hit him, while I recovered myself lying flat 
out on the beach, amazed that I wasn’t as bad, or worse, or dead. 

Struck Down 

What is left in my memory is the sheer quivering power of the 
ocean that day. Its power was even more unsettling because as soon 
as the second wave had gone, the sea returned to its regular rhythm 
and the blowhole to its original contained fury. A freak wave, two 
freak waves, near destruction, and then a return to shocked nor- 
mality. I had heard about them, waves out of nowhere, even in the 
midst of the ocean, turning boats over, but I had never witnessed 
them firsthand. It was as if the hand of the sea had reached out, sens- 
ing some arrogance on its borders, and given me the merest touch 
of its pure potentiality. I lay on the landing beach with a deep pain 
running through my stomach. I had been struck to the core, as if my 
insides had been rearranged, as if touched by a god in a Greek 

[ 10 3 ] 

David Whyte 

drama. In the old Greek stories depicting fleeting encounters with 
divinity, the touch of a god was always experienced as both violation 
and blessing. The violation was in my stomach — someone had 
reached inside me and in no uncertain terms informed me that I 
was like everything else in the world, I had no immunity. The bless- 
ing came in an unconscious physical respect for the sea that began to 
inform everything I did around the boats, from the merest tying of a 
knot to the safety of every individual and group in my care. 

The blessing was also in sheer survival. A few feet here, a few 
feet there, and I would have been over that cliff, from whence there 
was no return. A boat could not have even approached the place to 
pick up my body. 1 felt I had been given the sight of my own end and 
had returned to carry the revelation into the rest of my existence. 
This notion of my own vulnerability had something to do with 
belonging to the world like everything and everybody else. I was 
not a discrete sports star in the firmament of my own adulation. I 
belonged to everything, and everything had its own life equal to my 
own, and its own ending. Still, in an ironic way, 1 felt sure that I had 
come to all this myself, under my own luck and power. 

Plucked from the Waves 

As the waves recede, I come, three years later, to the armchair 
in Yorkshire and my mother sipping whiskey. The Jamieson’s was a 
sweet accompaniment to a late-night, bittersweet talk. I was home 
for only a short stay, and we were talking about my travels and the 
amount of time I spent away from her. In inimitable Irish fash- 
ion, my mother was telling me how much she missed me, how she 

1104 1 


thought about me every day and said a prayer to herself for my 
safety every night. The old beannacht, the Irish power of blessing, 
welling under her late-night words. I nodded in good son-like fash- 
ion but was ready to move on to other more adult things, appropri- 
ate to a grown man talking with his mother. But before I could 
encourage the conversation onto other ground, she began to tell me 
about a vivid dream she had woken from during my time in the 
Galapagos, three years before. 

Apparently, in the dream I had been standing on a black cliff 
with one other person, next to a fountain of water. A huge, fright- 
ening wave bore down on us in the dream. The blowhole on Hood 
Island. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as she spoke, 
describing in clear detail from her dream the exact circumstance of 
my near drowning. I had never so much as breathed a word of the 
incident, knowing how much she worried about me at the best of 
times, nor had I told my father or either of my sisters. “You were 
standing on the cliff edge next to the strange fountain when a big 
wave came over the top and swept you away. You came floating back 
in all the turmoil but then another bigger wave came and you were 
being taken out to sea. I felt the blackness of the water waiting for 
you. In the dream I leaned down from above and took hold of 
you by the back of the neck. I lifted you out and put you safely back 
on the cliff. When I woke I felt so happy that I had been able to 
save you.” 

I looked at my mother with total amazement. The hair rising 
on my neck and the shiver in my spine had little to do with the 
Jamieson s which I had to put down. I was shocked into silence to 
hear such a precise description of something so private to me, a clear 
description of the frightening trauma 1 had been trying, I realized, 

l 1 OS] 

David W h y t 

to forget, faraway on that lonely shore. The sound of the waves 
seemed to surround me as she spoke, the smoke of the sea spray 
thundering amidst the bird cries. 1 looked at her as if 1 had seen a 
ghost, which I had. It was my self-image disappearing into a wraith- 
like form and leaving me forever. I told my mother the other side of 
the story. We stared into our glasses; we looked at each other. 

From somewhere inside the fearful memory, I felt a level of 
absurdity about the whole thing, about my pretensions and the 
sense I had of my own powers. 1 found myself amidst other waves, 
waves of laughter, laughter at the folly of it all. They began to ripple 
to the surface, and my mother began to laugh, too. 

“Bloody marvelous, isn’t it?” I said. “Here I am adventuring 
around the world like some invulnerable version of Indiana Jones, 
lord of all I survey, and all the time it is my bloody mother coming 
in like the cavalry at the end and saving me from the jaws of the 
destruction.” We raised the glasses together, hooting at the image. 
But as the laughter subsided, I found myself telling myself in no 
uncertain terms, David, whatever it is you think you are, give it up. There 
are powers at play in the world about which you know very little. Like, for 
instance, this little woman sitting in front of you, who sponsored your exclu- 
sive membership in this hard-to-obtain world and for all you know still pays 
a hefty part of your annual dues. 

There was a definite feeling in the room of time stopping dead 
still, of the veil being torn from our ordinary perceptions of time 
and space, here and there, then or now. I’m not interested in the 
psychic glamour of it all, or the intuitive reach of my mother, which 
1 had experienced many times before. Yes, I was perfectly prepared 
to believe that the intercession was real, that without her watchful, 
loving presence I would have been swept away, never to be seen 

[10 6 ] 


again. But irrespective of the far-fetched reality of it all, something 
else had happened inside me while the conversation proceeded that 
night. I stopped trying to do it all myself. I was like everything else 
in this life. I didn’t need to have absolute total control over my des- 
tiny. I couldn’t have it anyway. It was ridiculous to try. It was all 
right if I lived in a world in which my mother had saved me in 
the end. 

In the shock of hearing my mother tell me my closely held and 
secret trauma, 1 was given a sense of the intimate way everything is a 
brother and sister to everything else. Everything we see as private is 
somehow already out in the world. The singularity of existence is 
only half the story; all of our singularities are in conscious and 
unconscious conversation with everything else. The fierce ecologies 
of belonging I had witnessed in Galapagos extended in and through 
my own body, like a long wave-form passing right through my life. 
My uncle John was passing through my life, my mother was passing 
through my life, all my ancestors were still passing through my life. 
Sitting there in front of the fire of a damp Yorkshire evening, 1 felt as 
if these waves of revelation and belonging had at last come to claim 
me like the Pacific breakers had once tried. As physical and real an 
experience as it had seemed living in Galapagos, 1 had only slowly 
been soaking in the truth of the place. It took going home again, and 
meeting the intensely personal and physical creature reality of my 

Mother is probably one of the more incontrovertible truths of 
life, not amenable to masculine theory. As men, we have no imme- 
diate notion of creating another being from our own bodies, of hav- 
ing that part of you grow and go out in the world while still 
remaining forever you, or that you could trace that reality even in 


David Whyte 

absence like a lost limb while the body still feels it is present. There 
I sat, poleaxed in front of my own mother, birthed again into a 
larger world, looking out from my dad’s armchair in the house in 
which I grew to maturity. The true armchair adventurer. 

Ambition and Ancestral Imagining 

Whatever powers we have in the world, in our work, in our 
powers of leadership, in our imaginations, they are in the gift of a 
much larger world than one we have made for ourselves. They are 
only a part of deeper, inescapable, ancestral imaginings which we 
join and which inform our every day and to which, every next day, 
we introduce our own children. More truthfully, perhaps, we let 
our children go out in the world and find it all for themselves, and 
report it back to us as if new — late one night, perhaps, with an 
inspirational bottle of something or other next to the fire. But the 
act of knowing and remembering this larger story, as we watch 
them grow, changes everything. Our presence in their lives changes 
everything when our actions are part of a larger story. We stop 
informing our children, consciously or unconsciously, that in the 
world of work, their own powers or their own career goals alone 
will bring them happiness. 

As I think about it, my mother’s absolute confidence in me as a 
child, whatever I chose to do in the world, was probably the basis 
upon which I could venture so confidently into the world. It must 
have come from her own knowledge of the precarious nature of life, 
the loss of her mother, and her fleeing from the blustering, shad- 
owed authority of 1940s Catholic Ireland. The leave-taking, the 

[10 8 ] 


crossing of the short but still unknown Irish Sea to make a home in a 
foreign land, sharpened her perceptions of the individual nature of 
every given life. She has never said it out loud; she has always lived it 
out loud. 

There is another coda to my mother’s childhood and to the 
strange ways our particular childhoods are handed down generation 
to generation. Whatever sense I have of my own identity as a man, 
there is a part ol me forever singing my heart out like a young girl 
while my mother lies dying in bed. A part of me shyly stepping onto 
a stage in Ireland in the late 1 940s. There is also a part of me, for all 
my singing of poetry and prose, that will not sing that one song 
again. In a parallel world there is a part of me, hands half frozen, 
fishing for silver clouds of herring in the North Sea, as my father’s 
family did at the end of the nineteenth century. What other unspo- 
ken stories and lives live on in each one of us, in our work, in our 
imaginings? We are the ending of some stories, the carrying on of 
others, and often just the beginning of many it is not our place to 

Here at least, is the end of one particular story, told in this 
chapter, and the beginning, perhaps, of other stories yet to be spo- 
ken. A few years ago, my mother traveled to the United States to 
see me and to warm the old house 1 had just bought and renovated 
to share with my son. We sat on a couch on the bare but beautifully 
polished planked floor, with my neighbor and friend, Peggy. I played 
a few Irish tunes on the violin for my mother, and then we talked 
about the new home and drank a glass or so to its future. We talked 
homes, all the houses and homes we had known. We talked of set- 
tling into homes, making homes, leaving homes. But Peggy’s atten- 
tion was caught and riveted when she found that my mother had 

I 10 9 ] 

David Whyte 

lost her mother at exactly the same age she had lost her own. You 
could sense the electricity in the air between them. Quiet but 
crackling. Old longings and embers of loss, stirred, spoken, and 
above all understood. Peggy quietly asked my mother how she had 
taken her mother’s death. My mother told her about the night of the 
singing competition, how she had sung that song, won, and never 
sung it again. There was another, longer silence. Peggy asked even 
more quietly, “Would you sing it for me?” I said nothing, I waited, I 
watched without breathing. My mother looked at Peggy. I could see 
her seeing Peggy, seeing herself at the same age, motherless in the 
world. She looked down for a second, she cleared her throat, and 
out of nowhere, damn it, she began to sing. 

A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing filled our new house, the notes clear 
and bright in the uncluttered room. 1 looked at that lined but beau- 
tiful face lifted like a bird, and listened to the song unsung for forty- 
six years, wishing my sisters could be brought invisible, to witness 
it. The song ended. 1 walked over to my violin laid on the table. I put 
it under my chin and started up a reel. My mother stood up, put her 
arms down by her sides, kicked off her shoes, and in small light, 
unbroken steps danced sprightfully across the room to the tumbling 
notes, while Peggy clapped, as light and graceful and innocent as the 
girl she had been . 

[ 110 ] 


The Awkward Way 
the Swan Walks: 

From Exhaustion to Wholeheartedness 

We are are forever in the midst of beginnings and arrivals: the child’s 
tiny crumpled face, looking out from its white, linened nest; the 
bowed heads of green buds beneath the Hawthorn, just about to open 
into color. We are just as compelled and caught by endings and depar- 
tures: the deathbed hand held in ours, its parchment transience graz- 
ing ours, just as it seems to be closing into something definite and 
sure. Out of birth comes anticipation and imagination; out of death 
and leaving we are given lit memories and stark sorrow, haloed by sig- 
nificance. The three year old becomes the thirty-year-old becomes 
the three-times-thirty-year-old becomes an ancestor to our own 
years, their work strangely forgotten while their face is clear in our 
memory. We work in the midst of all these beginnings and endings. 
We coast past the silent blue ambulance lights on the freeway and 
complete our commute in the midst of dying and loss. Through the 
seasons we cut sandwiches, chop celery, wipe two-year-old noses, 
put together formidable business plans, and hold important meet- 
ings. All the while, life arrives and departs as we labor. 

[113 ] 



Most of our days we do not perceive beginnings and endings; 
births and deaths feel blessedly far away, we find ourselves almost 
always in the middle of things. Sometimes for years we seem to be 
nothing but middle. Middle and muddle. Real beginnings and real 
departures seem a distant memory, and after a long time without 
the rawness of those firsthand experiences, they become something 
we are not sure we want anymore, something we want to hold at bay. 

What fortitude the Soul contains, 

That it can so endure 
The accent of a coming Foot, 

The opening of a Door! 

— E mily Dickinson 

The door does open, the footfall turns into a person, the per- 
son enters our fragile aloneness. It is a neighbor, a colleague, or a 
death, come to us at last, no middle lasts. More to the point for the 
raw, poetic imagination of someone like Emily Dickinson, no 
middle is really any middle at all. For someone who lived her life 
mostly behind closed doors, Emily Dickinson understood the 
nature of constant visitation. 

I dwell in Possibility — 

A fairer House than Prose — 

More numerous of Windows — 

Superior — for Doors — 

Of Chambers as the Cedars — 

Impregnable of Eye — 

And for an Everlasting Roof — 

[ 114 ] 


The Gambrels of the Sky — 

Of Visitors — the fairest — 

For Occupation — This — 

The spreading wide of narrow Hands 
To gather Paradise — 

Paradise, to Emily, is sheer presence, something she can har- 
vest with her own hands; presence is faith, and faith is the ability to 
pay attention to the world according to how we are made. The depth 
of our identity is dependent upon the depth of our attention. Real 
attention to our work opens up all the births and deaths constantly 
attendant on its doing and undoing. Middle may seem real, but 
middles are fleeting, mostly illusory, a form of defense. Life arrives 
and departs in the middle. All our great artistic and religious tradi- 
tions take great pains to tell us so. Middle barely exists. Everything 
is being born and is being borne up even as it is simultaneously 
dying and falling. Nothing is at rest, only in fleeting restful harmony 
like a single snowflake seen through a window, descending with all 
the others until it is reimagined again and again by time, tempera- 
ture, and wind. But the illusion of middle is comfort; middle can be 
wonderful insulation; middle is good — until it comes to an end, 
which is always sooner than we had hoped. 

In the Middle of Magnificence 

When you look in the world atlas for the city of Seattle, you 
find it nestled in the very top left-hand corner of the United States, 
right up against the Canadian border, sitting at the edge of an inland 

[ 115 ] 

David Whyte 

sea. The map indicates the name of the sea, The Puget Sound. Look 
more closely and you see the sound is specked with islands and that 
the city, the sound, and the islands are surrounded by mountains. To 
the right, you can trace one of those mountain ranges, the Cascades, 
sweeping up the spine of the American West Coast, just brushing 
the city’s eastern boundary on its way up into Canada. On the left 
side of the map, west of the city and the islands in the sound, lies 
the other bounding range, the white, roadless wilderness of the 
Olympic Mountains. 

Three mountains stand out higher on the map than any others. 
Mount Rainier in the south, Mount Baker in the north, and Mount 
Olympus in the center of the Olympics to the west. If you formed a 
triangle from these mountains and gazed into the center of that tri- 
angle, you would find yourself looking at one island in particular — 
a long, wandering island snaking north and south that opens into a 
teardrop at its southern end. At the eastern edge of this teardrop, 
there is a small town close to the shore. If you could, in your mind’s 
eye, look even closer beyond the details of the map, you would find 
in that seaside town an old wooden building full of many offices, and 
in one of these offices, in the mid-eighties, you would have found a 
very busy man oblivious to every bit of magnificence you had seen 
surrounding him on the map. 

Ten years after my time in the Galapagos, this wooded island 
in the Pacific Northwest had become my home. Ten years after 
Galapagos, I found myself still attempting to turn my love affair 
with the natural world into a work, a life, and a job. The nonprofit 
institute I had found on the island seemed a perfect vehicle. The 
organization was fine. I was in big trouble, trouble of my own mak- 

1 116 ] 


ing, busy all right, busy educating myself right out of any relation- 
ship with nature by the very way I was trying to bring it to others. 
There was an immense world outside my window that I was 
attempting to represent, but it was a world that was slowly receding 
from my physical experience exactly because of the way I tried to 
represent it. 1 looked, but I couldn’t see anymore. I was suffering a 
form of self-inflicted amnesia. 

Business, Busyness, and Speed 

Amnesia of the imaginative kind always seems to stem from a 
form of arrogance. My arrogance took the form of busyness. I was 
incredibly busy. I had lots of responsibility, lots of meetings, courses 
to run, people to accommodate, budgets to meet. My blue-water, 
carefree life in the Galapagos islands was but a distant memory. 
I had learned to work very fast, barely stopping for anything that 
did not seem productive or an aid to production. I moved from pho- 
tocopier, to receptionist, to filing cabinet in a tight, self-enclosed 
orbit. Speed was my essence and, I thought, my true savior in solv- 
ing the difficulties of commitment and the increasing burden of 

Speed in work has compensations. Speed gets noticed. Speed 
is praised by others. Speed is self-important. Speed absolves us. 
Speed means we don t really belong to any particular thing or per- 
son we are visiting and thus appears to elevate us above the ground 
of our labors. When it becomes all-consuming, speed is the ultimate 
defense, the antidote to stopping and really looking. If we really saw 

111 7 ] 

David Whyte 

what we were doing and who we had become, we feel we might not 
survive the stopping and the accompanying self- appraisal. So we 
don’t stop, and the faster we go, the harder it becomes to stop. We 
keep moving on whenever any form of true commitment seems to 
surface. Speed is also warning, a throbbing, insistent indicator that 
some cliff edge or other is very near, a sure diagnostic sign that we 
are living someone else’s life and doing someone else’s work. But 
speed saves us the pain of all that stopping; speed can be such a 
balm, a saving grace, a way we tell ourselves, in unconscious ways, 
that we are really not participating. 

The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities 
and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recog- 
nize anything or anyone who is not traveling at the same velocity as 
we are. We see only those moving in the same whirling orbit and 
only those moving with the same urgency. Soon we begin to suffer a 
form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself, 
where those things germane to our humanity are dropped from our 
minds one by one. We start to lose sight of any colleagues who are 
moving at a slower pace, and we start to lose sight of the bigger, 
slower cycles that underlie our work. We especially lose sight of the 
big, unfolding wave form passing through our lives that is indicative 
of our central character. On the personal side, as slaves to speed, we 
start to lose sight of family members, especially children, or those 
who are ill or infirm, who are not flying through the world as 
quickly and determinedly as we are. Just as seriously, we begin to 
leave behind the parts of our own selves that limp a little, the vul- 
nerabilities that actually give us color and character. We forget that 
our sanity is dependent on a relationship with longer, more patient 
cycles extending beyond the urgencies and madness of the office. 



A friend falls sick, and in that busyness we find their interrup- 
tion of our frantic lives frustrating and distracting. On the surface 
we extend our sympathies, but underneath we are already moving 
in a direction that takes us far away. We flee the situation even if we 
are sending flowers every day; we rejoin, thankfully, the world that 
is on the go, on the move, untouched by mortality. Once we our- 
selves are touched by that mortality, however, through whatever 
agency it arrives in our lives — a broken limb, the loss of a loved 
one, the collapse of our business, a moment of humiliation in the 
doorway of a meeting room — our identities built on speed almost 
immediately fall apart and disintegrate. We find ourselves suddenly 
alone and friendless, strangers even to ourselves. 

How Good Work Gets Done 

We seem to have to learn about the illusions of speed indi- 
vidual by individual, generation after generation. Yet speed by itself 
has never been associated with good work by those who have 
achieved mastery in any given field. Speed does not come from 
speed. Speed is a result, an outcome, an ecology of combining fac- 
tors in a person’s approach to work; deep attention, well-laid and 
well-sharpened tools, care, patience, the imagination engaged to 
bring disparate parts together in one whole. 

Here is Michael Finkel of The Atlantic Monthly, describing 
Steven Allen, Britain’s champion dry stone waller, in the midst of a 
wall-building competition on the Yorkshire moors, looking at the 
elements which combine to produce speed as a marvellous by- 

1 119 ] 

David Whyte 

I watched Allen work. He’d stand stock-still for a 
moment and stare at his wall with a calculating look on 
his face. Then he would swiftly turn around and bend 
down and select a stone. He’d twist it and jiggle it and 
flip it over and back, as if fiddling with prayer beads. 

Then he’d pick up his hammer, hold the stone to his 
thigh, and chip off pieces with a few sharp taps. One of 
the qualities that sets Allen apart from other wallers is 
his feel for the hidden seams snaking through a 
rock. . . . When Allen hit a rock, it invariably fractured 
along a plane as smooth as a sail. 

The right touch at the right time in the right place. The right 
word at the right time in the right place. Effort and will used only at 
pivotal moments. How we long for that deftness and that mastery, 
the ability to tap and cleave the fault lines of our own stubborn, 
stonelike working difficulties. To crack the stone like essence of our 
everyday work. But Allen’s speed seems to arise from his ability to 
discern emerging patterns, even when most of the other competi- 
tors are making the mistake of putting speed first, sweating, and 
heaving their stones into place. 

If he was setting [the stone] into a space between two 
others, the rock would literally click into place, wedged 
between its neighbors as tightly and neatly as if Allen were 
building with Lego bricks. He’d nod, reach down and 
sweep up the chips he’d broken off, and pack them into 
the center of the wall. Then he’d study the next gap for a 
second or two, spin around, and pick up another stone. 

1 12 0 ] 


Moments of speed and urgency but dependent on a felt per- 
ception of the larger pattern. The ability to close on something and 
then let it go. The key seems to be to find a restful yet attentive pres- 
ence in the midst of our work, to open up a spaciousness even in the 
center of our responsibility. To find some source of energy other 
than our constant applications of effort and will. If we attempt to 
engage the will continually, it exhausts us and prevents us from cre- 
ating something with a pattern that endures. A well-built, dry stone 
wall such as Allen constructs, free of cement, can settle, move, 
adapt to temperature, and function as a good wall for hundreds of 
years. In the limestone areas of Yorkshire, there are walls dating to 
the twelfth century; in Ireland, the remains of some dry stone field 
walls are 4,000 years old. 

As Finkel remarks, “Cement walls do not reach old age. Ce- 
ment walls do not move. They crack, and then they fall. ‘Cement,’ 
Allen says, ‘is a sin.’” 

We might say, as we attempt to construct something endur- 
ing in our own lives, that speed is a sin as constraining as cement. 
Speed seems to speak of movement but it actually glues us into 
whatever immobile, unattending identity we have constructed. The 
moment we stop the constant willful building, the edifice of our 
work falls down . 

Thinking on stone walls, I remember the long stone walls of a 
particular Welsh farm where I used to live and a particular old 
sheepdog that lived amongst those walls. The farm’s name was Tan- 
y-Garth, and the dog’s name was Cymro, which means Welshman. 
Cymro was Welsh through and through, from the tip of his black 
ear to the end of his tail, and looked on with deep respect as the 
best dog in the valley, which was saying something in that endless 

112 1 ] 

David Whyte 

patchwork of sheep farms, particularly as John, Tan-y-Garth’s 
owner, was known as a trainer of the very best caliber and someone 
who had brought along many a dog to give Cymro a run for his 
money. But Cymro never ran, he never needed to, and besides, he 
was far too old to do it. When I first came to know this grizzled, one 
ear up, one ear down, black-and-white genius, he was about thir- 
teen years old, virtually blind in one eye, with a distinct limp in his 
right hind leg. While other, younger dogs took off in great curving 
runs up the sides of the mountain to move the sheep along, Cymro 
would simply limp behind the multitude of ragged backs and lean 
slightly toward them, showing the flock his good eye. With pinpoint 
accuracy, the sheep would pass straight through the gap in the wall 
where John wanted them to go. Cymro was a virtuoso, a Joe Mon- 
tana of the dog world. He knew the pivotal places to stand, the piv- 
otal ways to move; he occupied the center of the sheep universe and 
knew their collective minds even before they did; he barely ever 
broke into a lope. If I ever want to slow myself, I think of old 
Cymro ’s economy of presence. We might envy the energy of the 
young, but there is as much to envy in the learned simplicity of 
those who know the essential relationships well enough to do the 
job and to do it with the lightest touch. 

Speeding to a Stop 

I was far from Cymro ’s effortlessness in the busy office build- 
ing I had since made my home. Far from Wales, far from Galapagos. 
But all this increasing busyness was my unknowing way of covering 
up for the fact that 1 was not standing in the right pivotal place, not 

1 12 2 ) 


leaning in the right direction, not showing my good eye. Poetry 
tugged and beckoned to me to move in its direction, but I hadn’t the 
faith for the final step of making myself visible. How was I to make a 
living from it, for God’s sake? The question seemed to stop every- 
thing in its tracks. I kept moving, ignoring the whispered invitation. 
Speed, ironically, is so often a symptom of total immobility. 

Besides, the reasons not to follow that particular pilgrim path 
were there in magnificent quantities. If you ever want ammunition 
to shoot down any secret ambition, ask others in an abstract kind of 
way what they think of your plans. We keep the most precious 
things secret exactly because we are not sure they would stand up to 
scrutiny in the light. A heartfelt desire is like a seed that needs the 
dark and the cold before it will germinate. The difficulty is that 
when spring eventually arrives, we can be so used to our desire 
being shelved in the dark that we keep it there and cover up the 
shoots even when the outer conditions for its growth may be right. 

If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are 
going full-time as a poet. Who would give me a word of encourage- 
ment if I did? It has never been easy to go full-time as a poet in any 
recorded portion of human history. When we announce to the 
world that we are about to go full-time as a poet, people do not 
come up to us, slapping us on the back, saying, “Great career move, 
David,” or “I hear they are taking them on at Lockheed right now,” 
or “Marvelous. I hear there is a decent dental plan comes with the 
verse.” Silence is the common response. Quite often they won’t 
even give us the good grace of arguing. They think better of encour- 
aging us by any sign, good or bad. 

And there is, for those married or otherwise committed, 
another silence to be encountered, a silence far more spine-chilling 

1 12 3 ] 

David Whyte 

than anything we may have encountered before: the uncompre- 
hending, far-reaching silence of the father-in-law. The silence of the 
father-in-law goes beyond anything we have known. It is the part of 
you, now concentrated in this frowning, wordless face, that wants 
to know how spouse and child are to be fed, housed, educated, and 
given their next pair of inline skates. Father-in-law is difficult, diffi- 
cult but good; he makes us real and accountable. He tells us the 
decision has to be made out of the fabric of our lives, and in rela- 
tionship with others in that fabric, it will not be achieved by tearing 
everything apart. 

But I didn’t need father-in-law to stop me at this point. I was 
doing a fine job by myself. If only I could go faster was my main preoc- 
cupation. But leave anything badly built to itself, stop running 
around holding it up here and then there, and like a badly built dry 
stone wall, it falls down, which is what quickly happened. One 
morning, hurtling from my desk toward the photocopier, I passed a 
roomful of my colleagues just about to start a meeting. There was 
someone I needed to talk to. I saw immediately that he wasn’t 
among them, but I put my head in the door before they could begin, 
and in a very loud, urgent voice, I said, “Has anyone seen David?” 

There was a moment of stunned incomprehension, which to 
my amazement, quickly dissolved into table-thumping laughter. My 
comic timing must have been impeccable, because the whole room 
was soon helpless, repeating what I had said and generally behaving 
like the pig-ignorant fools other people seem to be when the joke is 
at our expense. 1 looked back at them blankly, the truth dawning as I 
looked. “Has anyone seen David” might seem an innocuous ques- 
tion in most organizations, but I happened to be the only David who 
worked under that particular roof. 1 realized the forlorn and public 

[12 4 ] 


stupidity of my request and forced myself, after a wide-eyed 
moment, to laugh with them. Inside, I was dying. 

Looking for David 

I was looking for David, all right, and I couldn’t find him. In 
fact, I hadn’t seen him for a very long time. I was looking for a David 
who had disappeared under a swampy morass of stress and speed. 

In the humiliation of that moment, caught forever in a door- 
way, calling my own name, I saw I had become a stranger to myself. 
Not only that, but my self-exile had been revealed in a very public 
way. The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for 
acknowledgment, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be 
seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach ourselves, and 
our passionate and often violent inner needs suddenly break through 
the placid professional exterior. I obviously had a violent need to 
find myself and give myself a good talking-to. Everyone else in the 
office had discovered that at exactly the same moment as I had. 

I stood in that doorway, before that small audience, in absolute 
humiliation, which as it turns out, was a very good thing. Humilia- 
tion is mostly something we try to avoid, but it is something more 
often, all for the best, in retrospect. There is a lovely root to the 
word, the Latin word humus meaning soil or ground. When we are 
humiliated, we are in effect returned to the ground of our being. Any 
fancy ideas we have about ourselves are shriven away by the reality of 
the moment. We come to earth with a thump. It may be a narrow 
dark piece of ground, but at least it is real and at least it is our own. 
I had suddenly got off the upward and onward, abstract ladder of 

[12 5 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

work and come back to ground; David, the efficient Wizard of Oz 
work machine, had suddenly had the curtain whisked aside. I was 
astonished and agonized to see who was standing behind the veil. 

Yeats says, 

I must lie down where all the ladders start, 

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. 

When you get to the bottom, you’ll find everything you’ve 
disowned and thrown away from yourself lying around on the 
ground. There was a lot of old familiar material to be seen. I was 
looking for David because I hadn’t seen him for the longest time and I 
sincerely wondered where he was. I was looking for David because 1 
had become a stranger to myself and didn’t even have time for a 
snatched conversation about things that really mattered to me. I was 
looking for David because some inner relationship had been neg- 
lected and taken for granted; I had become like an old married 
couple who had stopped talking years before, the inner friendship 
with my old self slowly tearing apart under the strain. Behind the 
curtain was a man who was afraid to cross a threshold of visibility 
needed to make his place in the world. 

The Haunted House 
of Insignificant Successes 

The house I had built from my work was busy, but in the way 
a haunted mansion is busy, full of wails and rattling chains. All the 
time I refused to acknowledge my core work, I was turning myself 

[12 6 ] 


into a ghost on the surface. Sooner or later the real living person 
has to flee the haunted house. The threshold of that meeting room 
was a difficult, visible place to come awake, but at least I had come 
round from the fevered night . I had woken from the night terror of 
busyness, calling my own name, a name that had sprung uncon- 
sciously to my lips. We always reveal ourselves in the end, especially 
under the pressures of work. Sometimes we reveal ourselves subtly, 
so subtly that we do not even know we have done it. But I had chosen 
to do it in public: I must have wanted to shout it from the rooftops. 

“Has anyone seen David?” 

He was here, and he was very, very tired. As I stood in the 
doorway of the meeting room, I felt the energy flow out of me for 
this work, like an aspiring actor who had been continually painting, 
not a character, but a portion of the background scenery. 1 knew all 
at once, I couldn’t stay backstage anymore. 

I wanted to step out from the scenery and bring myself into 
some sharp outline in the light, to become foreground instead of 
background. I wanted to step out into the footlights and cast my 
shadow on something grand. I was tired of background because I 
had become background. If I was an actor, I had at least made my 
debut in that doorway, even if I was playing the skull in the grave- 
yard scene from Hamlet. Poor old Hamlet took one look at me and 
said, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite 
jest, of most excellent fancy . . .” My fancies had been excellent, 
all right, and my constant busyness the infinite jest. A killing tragi- 
comedy of errors. I contemplated my faded vitality in that doorway 
as Hamlet contemplated Yorick’s bony head, something that once 
had been alive and familiar years before, but now moldered and 
strangely come to light, seeming to belong mostly to the dead. 

[12 7 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

Part of the reason stopping seems like a death is that speed has 
become our core competency, our core identity. We do not know 
what powers we would be left with if we stopped doing what we 
were doing in the busy way we were doing it. Besides, there is a 
deeper, older human intuition at play that knows any real step for- 
ward comes through our pains and vulnerabilities, which is the rea- 
son we began to busy ourselves in the first place, so that we could 
stay well away from them. If we stopped, we would have to sojourn 
in areas that have nothing to do with getting things done but every- 
thing to do with being done to ourselves. 

Awkwardness and Vulnerability 

We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that 
we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far- 
reaching powers, and our all-knowing competency. Yet in the real 
world, no matter how many relationships may have been initiated 
by strength and power, no marriage or friendship has ever been 
deepened by these qualities. After a short, erotic honeymoon, power 
and omnipotence expose their shadow underbellies and threaten 
real intimacy, which is based on mutual vulnerability. After the 
bows have been made to the brass god of power, we find in the pri- 
vacy of relationship that same god suddenly immobile and inimicable 
to conversation. As brass gods ourselves, we wonder why we are no 
longer loved in the same way we were at our first appearance. Our 
partners have begun to find our infallibility boring and, after long 
months or years, to find us false, frightening, and imprisoning. 

1 12 8 ) 


We have the same strange idea in work as we do in love: that 
we will engender love, loyalty, and admiration in others by exhibit- 
ing a great sense of power and competency. We are surprised to find 
that we garner fear and respect but forgo the other, more intimate 
magic. Real, undying loyalty in work can never be legislated or 
coerced; it is based on a courageous vulnerability that invites others 
by our example to a frontier conversation whose outcome is yet in 

We have an even stranger idea: that we will finally fall in love 
with ourselves only when we have become the totally efficient organ- 
ized organism we have always wanted to be and left all of our bum- 
bling ineptness behind. Yet in exactly the way we come to find love 
and intimacy with others through vulnerability, we come to those 
same qualities in ourselves through living out the awkwardness of 
not knowing, of not being in charge. 

We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in 
which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability , ignore 
ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, 
strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we 
are open to the world whether we like it or not. 

The Awkward Way the Swan Walks 

1 left the doorway with whatever dignity 1 had remaining and 
went straight home. I felt as if I didn’t have an ounce of energy left 
to do the work I had been doing. As I came in the kitchen door, I 
saw the bottle of red wine 1 had pulled out that morning sitting 

[12 9 ] 



on the table in front of the window. Behind it, the sea formed a 
glinting gray green background. The dark bottle stood there in 
preparation for a guest I would be seeing that night. I dropped into 
a chair and looked at the unopened bottle and the sea and the sky 
for a very long time. I could feel how utterly exhausted I was in 
body and spirit, and how much I needed to talk with someone, any- 
one, but also how marvelous it was that the person arriving to share 
that bottle had exactly the kind of perspectives I needed at that 

1 could see Brother David already in my mind’s eye, sitting 
across from me with the glass of wine in front of him on the coffee 
table. A book of Rilke’s poetry balanced on his knees. He was re- 
citing Rilke in his rich, Austrian inflection, the sounds emanat- 
ing not only from deep within his body but also from far inside 
some powerful understanding mediated by long years of silence 
and prayer. Brother David was my kind of monk; no stranger to 
silence but equally at home in the robust world of work, its words, 
and its meanings. He also loved poetry with a passion similar to my 
own, and exhibited a far-reaching intellect and a far-reaching imag- 
ination in its exploration. You might be impressed by his extraor- 
dinary capacity for compassion, but it did not mean he would 
let any unthinking assertion pass him by without a challenge or a 

A few hours later, Brother David was indeed sitting in that 
empty chair. The bottle framed by darkness now in the window, and 
the cork sitting next to it. He was turning the pages of the Rilke 
book with one hand and sipping from his glass with the other. I had a 
second copy of the book but it sat on my lap unopened. After the 



first sip of cabernet, I felt as if I was in a deep well of fatigue looking 
up toward a tiny ellipse of light flickering at the surface. I felt as it 
the tiny light might disappear altogether and the waters How over 
me if I didn’t say something soon. I looked at Brother David, whose 
eyes had just lit up with the discovery of a poem to begin our 
evening, and heard him begin to read. 

Diese Mushal, dutch noch Ungetanes 
schwer und wie gebunden hinzugehn, 
gleicht dem ungeschaffnen Gang des Schwanes. 

I found the poem in my own book and read, on the opposing 
page, Robert Bly’s marvelous translation. 

This clumsy living that moves lumbering 
as if in ropes through what is not done, 
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks. 

And to die, which is the letting go 

of the ground we stand on and cling to every day, 

is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down 

into the water, which receives him gaily 

and which flows joyfully under 

and after him, wave after wave, 

while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, 

is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown, 

more like a king further and further on. 

— Translated by Robert Bly 

[ l 3 1 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

I read the lines, seeing the image of the swan being borne on 
the waters so effortlessly, and thought of my own days so full of will 
and effort. I looked up at Brother David, the nearest thing I had to a 
truly wise person in my life, and found myself almost blurting. 

“Brother David?” 

I uttered it in such an old, petitionary, Catholic way that I 
almost thought he was going to say, “Yes, my son?” But he did not; he 
turned his face toward me, following the spontaneous note of des- 
perate sincerity, and simply waited. 

“Tell me about exhaustion,” I said. 

He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate 
ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the 
entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had 
been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me. He said, in 
the form both of a question and an assertion: 

You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily 


“The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” I repeated 
woodenly, as if 1 might exhaust myself completely before I reached 
the end of the sentence. “What is it, then?” 

“The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” 

He looked at me for a wholehearted moment, as if I should fill 
in the blanks. But I was a blank to be hi led at that moment, and 
though 1 knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the 
wherewithal to say anything in reply. So he carried on: 

“You are so tired through and through because a good half of 
what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your 
true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only 
half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need some- 

[13 2 l 


thing to which you can give your full powers. You know what that 
is; I don’t have to tell you.” 

He didn’t have to tell me. Brother David knew I wanted my 
work to be my poetry. 

“Go on ,”I said. 

“You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the 
ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself 
on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself bet- 
ter. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he 
belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace 
and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your 
own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let your- 
self down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, 
and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.” He 
looked down and read again. 

And to die, which is the letting go 

of the ground we stand on and cling to every day . . . 

He looked up again, warming to the theme. I was getting a 
good talking-to. “This nervously letting yourself down, this angst- 
lichen Sich-Niederlassen, as it says in the German, takes courage, and 
the word courage in English comes from the old French word cuer, 
heart. You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon. 
Let go of all this effort, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, 
into the waters of the work you want for yourself. It’s all right, 
you know, to support yourself with something secondary until 
your work has ripened, but once it has ripened to a transparent full- 
ness, it has to be gathered in. You have ripened already, and you are 

[13 3 ] 

David W h 

/ 1 e 

waiting to be brought in. Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermen- 
tation. You are beginning, ever so slowly” — he hesitated — “to rot 
on the vine.” 

I gave an involuntary shiver at that last image, and recoiled 
from the prospect. It was a prospect of an early death experienced 
while still alive and it jolted me out of my exhausted torpor, as if 
some imaginative adrenaline was now beginning to flow through 
my system. 1 looked back at him, and realized that simply in the act 
of coming awake for a moment, my tiredness was falling away. His 
words had helped to lower me deeper into myself, down into some 
imaginative buoyancy, had plucked me off the vine; whatever the 
metaphor of harvest or arrival, it was happening right there in the 
room. From outside the window you would have seen a younger 
man and an older man speaking intently over two glasses of wine, 
their books put aside. You would see the younger one lean forward, 
purse his lips, say something, laugh, and sit back again. You would 
have seen a moment of light intimacy; you would not have known 
anything had changed profoundly for the younger man in that 
instant. But everything had changed. 

I said, That s it, that’s it exactly.” I sat back. What came to my 
mind even as he was speaking, were the faces of all my colleagues in 
the organization, with whom I would have to have those difficult, 
courageous conversations in order to change my work; change my 
work more toward teaching, more toward speaking, more toward 
poetry. It was a daunting prospect, but I wouldn’t be put off the 
task. I was so shaken by the moment in the doorway earlier that day 
and by the strong, pivotal words of Brother David’s that I took those 
conversations as a felt challenge and discipline from that moment 

1 13 4 ] 


on. I realized I had nowhere else to go. I gathered my courage the 
very next morning and began to talk with my colleagues. 

Over the next few months, I took the time to make those 
imaginary conversations real. I spoke with person after person, and 
slowly, conversation by conversation, changed my job description in 
the organization to something more fitting to my temperament. But 
the success itself told me the game was up for half measures. 
“Halfway will kill you,” I remembered, as my work life slowly began 
to simplify and come back into focus. As I met with each of my col- 
leagues, I began to see that in an extraordinary way the conversa- 
tions themselves were doing all the work. It forced me to ask myself 
the next question: “If this kind of conversation will bring you the 
work you want for yourself within an organization, what kind of 
work do you really want to do in the wider world? What are your 
elemental waters? What courageous conversations will bring you to 
your poetry?” Each of us has an equivalent core in our work, 
whether it is the path of the artist or the explorations of the engi- 
neer. Even if we already possess the work of our dreams, there is a 
way of doing that work that will deepen and enliven it, a way that 
begs for a daily disciplined conversation. 

A Day-by-Day Conversation 
with the Future 

I decided on two things: firstly I was going to do at least one 
thing every day toward my future life as a poet. I calculated that no 
matter how small a step I took each day, over a year that would 

113 5 ) 

David W h 

y t e 

come to a grand total of 365 actions toward the life I wanted. One 
thing a day adds up to a great deal over time. One thing a day is a 
powerful multiplier. Sometimes that one thing was writing poetry 
itself or memorizing lines of a newly read poem that caught my eye, 
or just writing a letter to an organization to say 1 was available for 
readings or talks. Sometimes it was a phone call to someone in a 
position of influence, letting them know what I could do. Some- 
times it was preparing the ground in my mind before the conversa- 
tion. Soon I felt as if 1 was being prepared by the conversations 
themselves. Over the ensuing weeks it was beginning to add up. I 
began to overhear a background buzz in the ethers that added to mv 

Second, I told everyone I knew that I was moving toward 
becoming a full-time poet. I wanted them to hear it and to hold me 
to what they had heard. Disbelief, silence, scorn, I didn’t care. I was 
doing my damnedest to create a kind of gravitational held that 
would have me drawn increasingly into its center. I had an intuition 
that when you really annunciate what you want in the world you 
will always be greeted, in the first place, with some species of 
silence. It may be that the silence is there so that you can hear 
exactly what you have asked for, and hear it more clearly so that you 
can get it right. If the goal is real and intensely personal, as it should 
be, others naturally should not be able to understand it the first 
time it finds its own voice. It means in a way, in a very difficult way, 
that you are on to something. Though daunting, at the beginning, 
silence is good, and silence is a testing fire. There are many kinds of 
silence to encounter in life, but there is a particular and delicious 
terror to the anticipatory silence that we create from actually 
following our heart’s desires. It seems to inflame and halo every 

113 6 ] 



conversation and everything we see with a significance and im- 
port beyond the ordinary. Whether we are poets or prosecutors, 
accountants or dot-com adventurers, surely what we desire from 
the best of our work is a bridge to the extraordinary and a pilgrim 
path to new worlds that reveals itself through a daily courageous 
conversation between our own powers and the powers of the 
world . 

Not long ago, I heard on the radio a description of a new form 
of propulsion for a probe that had just been launched into deep 
space. The spacecraft was powered by a newly developed ion motor, 
where sub atomic particles were propelled out the back of the 
probe and provided its acceleration. The scientist describing the 
new motor said that the amazing thing about the motor was that 
although the electrons were pushed out of the back of the probe at 
an incredible speed, the electrons were so small that the accelera- 
tion on the craft was actually only the equivalent of the weight of a 
piece of paper. But because that slight weight acted every moment 
and it occurred in a basically friction-free environment, the craft 
could reach speeds of hundreds of thousand of miles per hour. 

It is a profound metaphor for a poet, of course: just the weight 
of a piece of paper, a blank piece of paper, every moment, or even to 
begin with just once a day, every day. But it is a metaphor for any 
work and any person. A steadily building held of activity, laid down 
almost imperceptibly, layer upon layer, which creates a world and at 
the same time prepares us for our appearance in that world. 

The frictionless environment of space is a quality that can be 
felt by earthbound humans too. We feel as if we are in a frictionless, 

113 7 ] 



spacious, environment when things are moving our way and when 
we are engaged in a work that is our own. In that profoundly open 
territory we do not have to use will and effort to exert a force that 
will keep us going. Acceleration arises from desire itself — desire for 
the life we intuit awaits us. The desire itself translated step by step, 
day by day, into action is enough to propel us enormous distances. 
Once we have built our work and our contribution around our nat- 
ural gifts, we have joined a great gravitational river where the cur- 
rent is flowing in the direction we wish to travel . Longing is a deep 
current of gravity that we perceive will take us home, or to a new 
home, and being caught in that gravity field is the sense we have of 

Out of that gradually increasing gravitational pull, and out of 
silence, and out of all the actions I took in that silence, I found 
myself on a podium three months later, facing a very large audience, 
for which, despite everything I had done to arrive there, I was still 
not prepared. It came about very quickly, before I could complete 
even a quarter of those promised 365 actions. A speaker had can- 
celed for a conference at the last moment, and one of my daily 
actions had brought me to the notice of a friend who ran the con- 
ference. From that infinitesimal but infinitely important connec- 
tion, I and my work were catapulted into the visibility for which I 
had waited long years. 

[13 8 ] 


The Fatal Shore: 

Arrival and Authenticity 

California: a misted horizon where the sea meets the sky, and from 
that melded horizon, white, tumultuous, rolling breakers reaching 
between the rocks and high pinnacles of the Monterey peninsula. 
Beneath you, a constant low thunder from the water, and on the 
beach between the promontories, a man walking the damp, undu- 
lating line drawn on the sand by each arriving wave. Beyond him the 
road, and beyond the road a stretch of rolling dunes sweeping 
toward a cluster of buildings. One building higher than the rest, a 
long wooden hall, crowded with people, sitting, or standing, wait- 
ing for the talk to begin. 

I looked out over the assembled audience, many of them fresh 
from walking on the windswept beach, and felt none of the peace 
and tranquillity that came of walking on that sandy shore. The 
tumult of the waves was right here however, in the center of my 
chest. I was about to make myself visible, and I felt as if, true to all 
our old fears about coming out of hiding, 1 was going to pay for it. I 
hadn’t the faintest idea what I was going to say in the talk, but two 

1 13 9 ] 



whole hours stretched before me in which to say it. An ocean of 
time to cross. A good part of me would rather have waded straight 
into the real ocean outside the hall, straight into the thunder of 
those oncoming waves, than face this audience, 600 strong, in this 
state of mind . 

The Promised Land 

So much of our work and our ideas of work are bent toward 
arrival in the promised land. We might be on a pilgrimage of iden- 
tity in work, but it is almost always the prospect of arrival that keeps 
us going rather than the journey itself. We aim for a certain genius 
in our daily work which most always eludes us, but still, it is the 
possibility of genius that has us toiling late into the night. We aim 
for a marriage, a partner, a house, or a garden, and work and sacri- 
fice for that future vision of loveliness, until sometimes the very 
nature of our struggle disqualifies us from the garden we have so 
long desired. But arrival has its own difficulties. We may imagine a 
place in the hierarchy of our organization where we will find safety 
and security, from which we will then speak out, but find ourselves 
just as unsure even as we pace the supposedly safe upper floor of the 
building. We promise to be generous with our money but die with 
our retirement account stuffed with ungiven treasure. We long for 
an audience, to be the center of attention, to have our thoughts 
heard in the world, and find ourselves, once it is assembled before 
us, terrified by the prospect. 

The actual arrival at a goal always creates a turmoil uncon- 
nected to any previous imaginings. Once we cross the frontier from 

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desire to actual fulfillment, we find that in order to inhabit the new 
world we have to slough off the identity that was so necessary to 
us as a seeker. At this point we may have become, over the years, 
so much the seeker that we cannot put that ever-moving, never- 
stopping, always-searching identity down in order to pick up any- 
thing new. We find the image of the seeker has become our ultimate 
defense against the intimacy of any new arrival. The promised land 
we thought we wanted suddenly seems to ask for a simplification of 
our character that seems too much too soon. Almost by definition, 
any real arrival always seems to occur too soon. 

There is another historical reality close to the central themes 
of both pilgrimage and arriving. Most of the people who have 
arrived in a new world, in a new Jerusalem or Mecca, whether it is 
America, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, or Australia, found themselves, 
having scrimped and saved for the passage, and having been robbed 
blind by those who transported them, on the shore of the promised 
land without a penny in their pocket. It seems to be the nature of 
any new territory that we arrive on its borders flat broke. Any new 
world seems to demand dispossession and simplification. We look 
back in longing for our previous comforts, which, for all their 
smallness and poverty, at least had the richness of familiarity. 

A close friend said a marvelous and disturbing thing to me one 
rainy afternoon. She said, looking off into the veils of gray beyond 
the window, that to claim our happiness in life is one of the most 
difficult things a human being can do. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she 
replied, “the moment we claim the happiness to which we have long 
aspired, large parts of us are immediately out of a job. All the parts 
of you that believed it wasn’t possible are about to be let go. What 
is left is a simplified version of what you were before. If you do 

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David Whyte 

not recognize this simplified essence, you feel like a stranger to 

In the allegory of the workplace, we could see my friend’s 
description of arrival as a kind of massive inner corporate downsiz- 
ing, where large parts of us then have to be retrained for other 
tasks. It is often the sheer scale of that simplification that scares us 
away from an accessible happiness and back to smaller, more com- 
plex obsessions which are at least familiar. 

Whenever we are faced at last with a change for which we 
have looked for years, we must slip off the habituation of those same 
years and learn ourselves anew. I remember taking a friend, known 
for her grand and well-loved addictions, for a Japanese meal. She 
was amazed by the lightness and cleanliness of the food. “I feel so 
good,” she said as we left the restaurant, “just as good as I when I 
came in. This is so unusual for me with eating,” she said. “I always 
overdo it.” She went off to bed marveling at how light she felt. The 
next morning at breakfast, I asked how she had slept, and with a 
kind of sheepish horror she confessed that she had felt so good get- 
ting into bed that she had actually been unable to sleep, as if some- 
thing still had to be done and she hadn’t quite got to it. She finally 
went to the pantry and pulled out the biggest, fattest bag of rustling 
Doritos she could find. Once she had taken them under the covers 
and consumed the whole lot, she felt normal enough to go to sleep. 

There is a certain kind of heaviness and insulation we can 
grow used to. The body can feel strange when it inhabits the world 
in a lighter way, when it encounters a form of happiness or fulfill- 
ment for which it has had no apprenticeship. A lightness and 
litheness that gives us a sense of ease, movement and potential may 

I 14 2 ] 


bring things that have always been a struggle to us more easily, and 
scare us to death in the process. It may be that we felt that lightness 
years ago but failed in what we wanted and now the return of that 
possibility can be just too overwhelming. I have often thought that 
spending a few moments a day practicing the art of happiness, of 
gratefulness, of celebration and arrival, of victory in tiny but impor- 
tant things would go a long way toward preparing us for those 
grander, more lifelong goals for which we are often unprepared. 

At this moment I was facing one of those grander lifelong 
goals. An audience for my work. A joy for which I was unprepared. 
It was suddenly quiet; I could almost hear the waves on the far 
beach if I strained. I took a deep breath as a prelude to beginning, 
and looked out over that beautiful beamed hall to another sea, a sea 
of lifted, expectant faces. They were expectant all right, expectant 
but puzzled. I had been brought in at the very last moment to 
replace a speaker who could not appear; they knew nothing about 
my name, my work, or anything about what 1 had to offer. 1 could 
understand their puzzlement, because facing them I felt completely 
unfamiliar to myself. I wasn’t sure I had anything to offer to the 
audience, because not only was I in a fit of apprehension but my 
body felt as if it was falling apart into the bargain. I had woken just 
an hour before with the same exhaustion and sickness I had woken 
to every difficult morning for the previous week. In fact, I had been 
so ill for most of the conference that I had listened to the other 
speakers while flat on my back. Behind the last row of seats was a 
large carpeted area, and there I had lain, morning after morning, 
listening. As I listened, I watched through the higher windows of the 
hall, cloud line after cloud line, moving in off the sea like a mirror of 

[ 14 3 ] 

David Whyte 

the waves below, all the while wondering how I would muster the 
strength to stand up there and speak myself. 

Exhaustion was not a good beginning for any possible future 
work life, and especially not as a poet. At the beginning you need 
verve and nerve and reserves of vitality to embark on any new path, 
especially to overcome any skepticism that has lodged in your own 
body from the outside world’s refusal to believe in you. As the time 
for the talk grew nearer there were moments when I could have 
wept with frustration. For years my whole life had been leading up 
to just such an audience and I simply couldn’t believe that 1 seemed 
in no fit condition for the encounter. I wanted badly to knock on 
opportunity’s waiting door, but had somehow missed the street 
number, wandered off into a bad neighborhood, and was now 
knocking on death’s door by gratuitous mistake. I had been given 
my big chance, and by the look and feel of it, I was going to fluff it. I 
had an audience of 600, a theme I wanted — Entering the World of 
Poetry, and the opportunity to read and recite plenty of verse, my 
own and others’ , to get to the bottom of that theme. We must be care- 
ful what we ask for in our work, I told myself, we may get it, and most 
likely we will not be prepared for it when it arrives. 

There was another thing I had asked for, not only in my 
dreams, but in my waking, working, practical days: I wanted to be 
paid for the work. I wanted poetry to be seen as useful and practical 
enough that people would want to hand over a few shekels by way 
of happy exchange. As it turned out, they were paying me well, 
which made it worse. Everything was in its place, it seemed, but me. 
God had been good to everything except the state of the individual 
washed up exhausted on the shore of this promised land. 

1 14 4 ] 


Final Disappearance 

My health had begun to crumble in the previous week. An 
uncertain weakness had slowly changed day by day to certain debili- 
tating illness. It was over the Christmas period, and so I held off see- 
ing a doctor. Besides, lately I had become used over the previous 
months to a much milder version of these symptoms. It was as if as 
my inner, imaginative life grew richer around my life as a poet, my 
outer body was sloughing and shedding itself like an outworn 
chrysalis. Once Christmas had passed and I had flown down to Cali- 
fornia, found Monterey, found the Conference center, and found 
the audience, I then found myself growing weaker and weaker and 
weaker. A strange exhaustion of body and spirit that had me sleep- 
ing twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch, drifting off to the sound of 
the waves and waking next morning almost as tired as I had the 
night before. It was a kind of physiological and psychological prison 
that seemed impossible to escape at the time, as if somewhere deep 
down inside me, someone had pulled an essential plug, and what- 
ever I managed to pour in through my sleep had by morning, run 
right out through some invisible channel. Many of us have had a vis- 
itation of this kind ol exhaustion. We look out into the morning 
light as we would through a barred window. Vitality is just a mem- 
ory, enthusiasm is a childhood we once had. 

This malady had been with me for months in a very mild form, 
but I seemed to degenerate quickly as the great moment approached. 
As the audience loomed in my mind, the merest tint of panic began 
to color everything. Troubled dreams and troubled days. Every 
morning I attempted to clear my mind tor the presentation ahead, 

[14 5 ] 

David Whyte 

to think, to write, and to go over the poetry I had memorized for 
the big day, but every morning after just a few hours awake, I would 
find myself coasting back into an exhausted sleep. Tomorrow I’ll come 
round, I thought, sure I would rally as always for the big occasion. 
But the rally did not happen, and the big occasion got nearer and 
nearer. The morning of the talk, as I woke, my heart died within me 
when I realized 1 was at the very bottom of the well looking up. 1 
faced the light of that day with the same fear in my gut that a con- 
demned man must face thinking of a row of raised rifles. 

There was no hearty breakfast for me, however, no last 
wishes, and no blindfold. I told no one about my interior state; my 
ingrained Yorkshire inheritance forbade any complaining — where I 
grew up, the prospect of imminent death is no excuse for whining. 
But I did live in feverish wild hope: hope for a lightning storm to 
roll in before my talk and burn the hall to the ground; hope for a 
tsunami to wipe us all, audience, speaker and conference center, off 
the face of the earth; hope for a bomb scare, to evacuate us safely 
away from any dangerous, waiting, attentive crowd. Nothing hap- 
pened, only the continuous arriving waves, hour after hour, heard 
from the beach. 

Facing the World 

To find good work, no matter the path we have chosen, means 
coming out of hiding. Good work means visibility. We have all had 
dreams in which we face a large audience without clothes, without 
notes, without an inkling of what to say; the faces expectant, wait- 
ing, terror in our eyes, the focus entirely on our lone naked figure. 

[ 14 6 ] 


Let me tell you that the terror involved in that dream is entirely and 
utterly accurate and most of our intuitions about the dynamics of 
facing large audiences are horrifyingly exact. “Just be yourself,” 
people say, as if they have suddenly thought of something entirely 
original, and as if they have forgotten the terrible, wrenching initia- 
tions most religions insist on for arriving at that elusive self. To be 
yourselt is to be no self at all but to be the frontier, the frontier 
between you and the audience — the large audience of a waiting 
crowd or the smaller more intimate audience of our immediate co- 
workers. Their ability to see us and know us in ways which give 
them a close knowledge of who we are and what we are attempting 
to do in the world, can seem too much, too intimate, too soon. Vul- 
nerability and intimacy can make a very frightening shoreline. But 
that is a wave line we must walk in work. Work is exposure, our 
fancy ideas about ourselves a sandcastle built right at the edge of the 
incoming sea. Hence those long, nighttime dream rehearsals which 
have us practicing the dramatic confrontation, facing the waves, or 
the immensity of faces, as naked as the day we were born. 

I did have my clothes on that morning, which was a slight sav- 
ing grace, though at the time if I had thought for an instant that their 
removal might help create an interesting moment for the waiting 
crowd, then I might have thrown them off in an instant. Like the cli- 
mactic scene from The Full Monty, a final blaze of poetic, suicidal, 
career glory, my hat spinning crazily into the astonished crowd. 

I held on to my metaphorical hat, but the self-revealing nature 
and final uncovering I had to do, felt much the same. This was not an 
ordinary talk; a subject of passing interest to me. This was the core 
work of presenting poetry to the world, my own and others’, to 
which I had dedicated myself. This was all of my intuitions about 


David Whyte 

what I was supposed to do in life, a talk in which I was putting 
everything on the line; this was my work. 

As I began to speak, 1 had a clear notion of one of the dynamics 
I faced. It is all very well to have a dream, but the moment you put 
the dream to hazard, you have the possibility of failing it. How many 
times do we keep a hope or a dream in abeyance because the possi- 
bility of failure is too much to contemplate? If we failed at that, then 
who would we be? Would there be anyone left at all? Making our- 
selves visible is, in effect, simultaneously arranging for the possibil- 
ity of our own disappearance. I had a momentary understanding as I 
looked out on those upturned faces that there was no way round 
that disappearance, I just had to keep sight of everything that was 
appearing before me anew as my old sense of things disappeared. 
The territory that lay between me and the audience was my new 
home; that was what I had to focus on. 

I remembered the image of Rilke’s Swan from my evening 
with Brother David, and reminded myself that it didn’t matter how 
awkwardly I began so long as everyone could feel me stumbling in 
the right direction. I began to speak, slowly and hesitatingly, but I 
was speaking, and the audience was listening, intrigued. All the 
while I carried in my mind the image of the swan slowly letting 
himself down into the water. I let myself down into the first poem 
and found a buoyancy there that would hold me. That buoyancy car- 
ried me on into the next poem, and the next. As the lines unfolded, 
I found myself being swept along by the currents of meaning that 
seemed to emerge between my voice and the ears of the listeners. 
As I swept downstream into the talk, the silence and spaciousness of 
the river of poetry began to open up a sense of rest in my own body. 
To my surprise, the fogginess began to clear, and to my greater sur- 

1 14 8 ] 


prise, I found that my groggy memory was flawless in that flow. The 
exhaustion began to melt away; I actually felt my hands and my 
voice beginning to tingle with energy and anticipation. It was if I 
had been holding myself completely in abeyance, squandering no 
extra energy at all, not even for the actions of everyday living so that 
I would have it all for this moment. 

As 1 write, I think back to Cymro the old sheepdog, limping 
toward the back of an enormous flock of sheep, the green moun- 
tains of North Wales rearing behind him, his minute, careful move- 
ments somehow moving a whole universe of sheep along the valley 
bottom, without the least perceptible effort — some hidden con- 
nection working between his canine intelligence and the chaotic 
drift of the animals attempting to escape him. I felt the same pivotal 
presence with regard to all of the possible directions I could have 
taken in the talk and all of the possible poems I could have used. But 
like Cymro, battered and weak as I was, I felt I was standing in 
exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing, in exactly the 
right way. 

Halfway through the talk, there was an absolute, living bond 
between myself and the audience, as if there were no speaker and no 
listener and the words were simply being created at the unknown 
frontier between listening and speaking. I looked out and knew this 
was the edge at which I wanted to live. This was the line between 
speech and revelation, hearing and arrival, we capture on the page 
and call poetry. This was my work, my water, my elemental home to 
which I had staggered so awkwardly and so unfaithfully. It doesn’t 
seem to matter how awkwardly the swan moves when it is out of its 
element, tripping over itself on land. The arrival and grace of the 
creature once it reaches that water removes all blemish from the 

! 14 9 ] 

David Whyte 

struggle to get there. 1 went home after the talk and resigned my 
position at the center. 

There was nothing in my calendar, nothing in our family 
checkbook. There was no one, as yet, at the other end of the phone, 
but there would be. Before I left Monterey, I took one last walk on 
the misted beach. The waves were falling and crashing, rolling in 
from a great distance, arriving and receding as they had for cen- 
turies. 1 walked the tide line a very, very, happy man. 

[15 0 ] 


Outlaw Imaginings: 

When the Real You Wants Out 

There is nothing stranger than success. The moment the creature 
arrives, it subtly alters the very work we did to become successful 
in the first place. Whatever measure of happiness we find in our 
work, once we have arrived at a goal — whether it be setting up a 
new business, signing up with a company, or writing a first book — 
it takes incredible skill not to be captured by the very structures for 
which we longed so deeply in the first place and which originally 
seemed so grand and radical. Human beings seem to have the amaz- 
ing ability to turn any sudden gift of freedom or spaciousness into 
its exact opposite. The mantle of possibility descends upon us and 
instead of warming and emboldening, covers our face and our eyes. 
The corporate climber expects freedom and clear decision making 
in the executive suite and is astonished to find himself hemmed by 
politics, harangued by investors, and mauled by the media. The 
writer, finally given the advance for which she has longed for years, 
finds, the moment it is banked, exactly the moment she can’t seem 
to get to her desk as easily. When she does find herself before the 

I 1 s 3] 

David W h 

y t e 

open page, she finds she has nothing to work against, or too much to 
work against. Something has changed. Before, she worked alone and 
her voice seemed singular and innocent. Now her writing is at the 
center of an enormous industry spreading out in ripples from the 
grain of her pine desk. She tries to create too much meaning in too 
short a space, or her style takes on a pleasing aspect that robs her of 
her original voice. She finds herself amazed and powerless; she longs 
secretly for the time when she went unrecognized, but she cannot 
send back the check, the very thing that tells her she has arrived. 

The first steps into a new world reveal to us the overwhelming 
nature of the territory we have entered. A certain vulnerability, an 
ability to take risks, may have got us to the threshold, but once 
arrived, we may find ourselves refusing to move any further now 
that the outer trappings are there; we may subtly begin to circle the 
wagons, hunker down, drop from sight. A subtle confusion fills our 
nights and trammels our days, but because everyone else sees only 
our visibility and success, we go through the new days of arrival in 
an increasing daze. We long for the real, the original, the uncor- 
rupted, but something seems to have insulated us from originality. 
The Greeks named this phenomena of inversion and capture Enanti- 
adiomia: the ability of anything followed unthinkingly, to turn into 
its exact opposite. Midas touches his daughter and turns her to gold. 
His one-dimensional ability immobilizing everything he loves to a 
currency that can never replace the real, underlying pulse of life. 

Of course, when we first achieve a new level of mastery, a new 
place in the hierarchy of the great and the good, there is always a 
time for lying low, establishing ourselves, staying below the horizon 
until we find our feet. But those times tend to be shorter than we 
might want or think. Many newly appointed executives lose their 

I 15 4 ] 


tide if they wait too long to act. “Business as usual,” everyone says, 
and anything attempted after the tide of expectation has receded 
takes twice the work and twice the convincing. 

The difficult point about any sudden loss of direction, any fear 
that holds us back from new territory, is that we begin to think that 
we may be frauds, that everything that led up to this experience may 
have been manufactured, too. To others we are success itself, but we 
ourselves, feel as if we are just apprenticing ourselves again to 
something much larger than we anticipated. The crucial point about 
our arrival in a new territory is that it is often a time of disorienta- 
tion, and disappearance. We look for cover as an antidote to our dis- 
orientation and disappear into the glory of our past story in the 
process. Our disappearance occurs at a crucial time, exactly the 
time when we are forming the habits and outlook that will serve us 
for the next stage of the journey. 

The pivotal questions to ask ourselves in the mirror every 
morning, successful or no, are deep, uncompromising ones of per- 
sonal identity. How much freedom of movement do we find now in 
our work, whatever the outward trappings? How much of the orig- 
inal person is there? Without these core questions, our great loves 
can turn slowly and invisibly into imprisoning forces. “I have become 
everything I hate,” an executive once told me in the cafeteria of a 
large company, “yet I am doing exactly what I have always wanted to 
do.” In his eyes I saw that he had glimpsed enormous impersonal 
forces for which he had no language and which, unawares, had cor- 
rupted his work, his sense of freedom, and his sense of self. 

It seems to me that asking deep questions about personal free- 
dom in work is not a selfish act, and not something aimed solely for 
the benefit of the person questioning. A child’s sense of spaciousness 

[ / 5 5 ] 

David Whyte 

and timelessness is deeply affected by the sense of freedom that 
their working parents possess. Any committed relationship between 
adults needs a mutual access to solitude that is cut off by worry, 
stress, or a once-successful work which now lays siege to the mar- 
riage. A child’s sense of being loved is almost always linked to the 
parents’ sense of spaciousness, and freedom, especially the freedom 
to be spontaneous and present. 

When we try to answer questions of personal freedom in work, 
our first instinctual reaction can be one of powerlessness. “That’s just 
the way it is,” we say to ourselves; “that’s just the way the work has to 
be done; that’s the way the company is, the way my boss is, the way my 
editor is, the way my supervisor is; that’s the nature of what I do, of the 
world in general; those are the rules; that is what I am bound by.” 

The Law and the Outlaw 

To preserve a sense of freedom even in the midst of rules and 
regulations is to preserve a part of our identities free from the stric- 
tures and responsibilities of success, career, and corporation. The 
measure of our continuing individuality in any work is the refusal to 
be swallowed by our goals, our ambitions, or our company no mat- 
ter how marvelous they may be. In order to live happily within 
outer laws, we must have a part of us that goes its own way, that is 
blessedly outlaw no matter the outward conditions or rewards. A 
part of us that belongs to a larger world than that defined by our 
career goals or our retirement accounts. 

The mythologist Joseph Campbell said something refreshing 
and radical when asked by an interviewer how an ordinary person 

[ l S 6 ) 


could preserve his sense of the mythic when most feel too besieged 
by the little everyday claims of the bills and the mortgage. “You must 
have a place,” answered Campbell, “to which you can go, in your 
heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do 
not know what you owe anyone or what anyone owes you. You must 
have a place you can go to where you do not know what your work 
is or who you work for, where you do not know who you are mar- 
ried to or who your children are.” Hearing this, our first reaction is 
to believe we are being pushed toward a form of self-absorption, 
but Campbell’s point is that most of us carry responsibility in a very 
selfish way, as a burden, a weight, something that diminishes us and 
makes us resentful of those for whom we are responsible. Campbell 
asks us to look for the part of us that is not beholden, that stands out- 
side our normal structures, particularly the structures of work that 
can lie on us so heavily, that take so much energy to carry, and that 
can break the blossoming fragility of anything new and promising. 

To find the roots of our responsibilities, we must go to the 
roots of our abilities, a journey into a core sense of ourselves where 
we can put together an understanding of how we are made, why we 
have the responsibilities we have, and, just as important, the images 
that formed us in our growing. We all have particular images of 
freedom, mischief, and radical individuality we carry deep inside 
ourselves which can help us to throw off the tyranny of a situation, 
our own indomitable stubbornness, a difficult boss, or a repressive 
organization. At its most desperate, the image of freedom is Thelma 
and Louise driving off the cliff edge; at its most integral, it can be 
the image of great artists, reformers, saints, or religious figures, 
true revolutionaries of their time, refusing to drive off the cliff 
edges others have so generously provided. 

[15 7 ] 

David Whyte 

Most often, the images of freedom that live inside us are often 
images of those people who impressed us as children and who 
seemed to stand outside the constraining walls of the adult world. 
Each of us has a necessary outlaw in our inheritance on which we 
can call. Each of us has, in our imaginations and memories, images 
of freedom against the odds. As adults it may be a Nelson Mandela, 
the Dalai Lama, or an Amelia Earhart. As children it may have been 
Nancy Drew, the Littlest Hobo, or Clint Eastwood. For myself I 
remember the flood of sheer possibility reading about the voyages 
of Captain Cook in the eighteenth century, gone for years from his 
and my Yorkshire home, sailing the horizons of the then known 
world. To find these original images of childhood, we have to cross 
the unknown territory of our lives and reach back into our memo- 
ries, our childhood bodies, and often, our childhood homes. 

Going Home 

Whatever the measure of our success, going back home either 
literally or in our imaginations, is such a long, long road. To return 
to our childhood haunts after long years away is to find ourselves in 
the midst of simultaneous familiarity and strangeness. We return 
from Vancouver, San Francisco, London, or Cape Town, or from 
just a few miles down the road, but the past is so immediate that it 
seems to speak to us like a continuous low voice in our ears. Here 
we shouted for our friends beneath the trees, there we fell and cut 
our knee; and there we bullied or were bullied ourselves, trying out 
the edges of power and powerlessness. We see houses exactly the 
same as the day we left, or the foundational outline of homes that 

[15 8 1 


we can now trace only in our minds. Those we knew are strangely 
changed and grown older, some we knew are dead and gone. 

We do have our work now, a work that was formed in the 
growing imagination of the child we once were, but the work itself 
has changed and made us, formed us into something different, 
something perhaps good but also disturbing at the same time. We 
walk old familiar ways and, distant now from all the other voices 
that crowded our childhood, try to imagine what that dreaming 
young self would think of the strange adult we have become. 

We may not think of the child we once were from day to day, 
but triggered by the deep losses or enormous gains that mark our 
path through life and work, we hope in secret for the child’s contin- 
ued friendship as we travel toward some distant maturity. Some- 
times the memories are brushed aside, too painful for more than a 
surface investigation; sometimes they catch us unawares like a ghost 
brushing our wrist, a visitation of pain. Whatever memories we are 
able to retrieve, caught now in a form of imaginative sepia. 

The child’s distance from us, the child we once were, can be as 
painful as the distance from a real son or daughter, especially if we 
fear we have failed in the midst of all our public successes at a par- 
ticularly private dream, a dream original to the flawed genius of our 
growing. Looking back to that child, we may find our earlier hopes 
painful; an unwanted encouragement to attempt it all once more, 
or, a searing memory that mocks our embittered refusal to try again. 

The child’s hopes for good work are centered on freedom 
and in that freedom, on excitement and continued possibility. The 
child’s worst fears, seeing the continued worry on a parent’s face, 
are that work might be entrapment after all, a cornered powerless- 
ness and a deadly, very personal imprisonment. Desperate, the child 

[ 1 S 9 ) 

David Whyte 

looks for possibilities of freedom in every encounter, every person, 
face, and place, and stores those encounters away like buried treas- 
ure, knowing they might come to them again. To a child, a coura- 
geous aunt, a roguish uncle, an authentic teacher, a true friend; a 
scintillating character in a picture book, all hold, by their example, 
imaginative treasures that a child will use later when they must 
open their life and work once more to a sense of freedom and hap- 
piness. Years later, at a difficult threshold —at thirty, forty, fifty-five 
or sixty-five — we suddenly remember exactly the place in our body 
we buried those freedoms, and marking the spot, dig deep into the 
ground of that memory to reclaim and live them again. 1 have the 
memory of an outlaw, a particular one, that as a child I thought 
belonged only to my own neighborhood and my own childhood, but 
which I was surprised to find, growing older, belonged to the entire 
world . 

Freedom and Memory 

From the familiar stone wall, I look across the green fields and 
woodlands of Hartshead. An ancient, lovely Yorkshire landscape of 
farms, woods and well tended fields, threaded by hidden paths I 
still can follow easily in my mind’s eye. A landscape I know. At the 
brow of a hill about midway to the horizon and to the left of an 
immensely grand house, I see a dark smudge of trees from which 
the roofline of a ruined Chinese pagoda can be discerned — that is, if 
you know already where to find it. 

Once, as a child, I stood stock-still in the forbidden and pri- 
vate silence beneath that ruin while two gamekeepers spoke softly 

116 0 1 


on the far side of the broken wall, asking each other if they had not 
heard something move just then. They froze, listening intently. In 
the shadow of those walls, my twelve-year-old body froze with 
them like a ghost, an ancestral knowledge of my intrusion into the 
private sanctuary of the big house alive in my bones. I had the mis- 
creant’s guilt, passed down from father and mother and untold gen- 
erations of the dispossessed; it fell over me as I stood crouched 
beneath the ruin, like a cloak of invisibility. The hands of a well- 
founded historic fear clamped round my throat, until I heard them 
go. Then I let myself escape from my immobility, dropped to the 
ground and ran through the woods. 

I was outlaw and fugitive all at once, and watched their slowly 
disappearing shadows in the wood as 1 crept back along the path to 
the graveside. The grave was quiet and secluded, a place I loved, 
protected from intrusion, it seemed then, by its own tangible aura 
and by a thicket of rhododendra. A low stone wall in the gray form 
of a rectangle and with fallen pillars in the shadows on either side, it 
was capped by a tangle of rusted wrought iron, through which I 
could struggle for entrance, crouch by the inscribed slab, and read 
the old, archaic script by the dapple of wood light. 

Hear underneath dis laid Stean 
Laz robert earl oj Huntingtun 
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud 
An pipl kauld im robin heud 
Sick utlawz az hi an iz men 
Vil england nivr si agen. 

Obiit 24 Kal. Dekembris 1247 

[16 1 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

A two-hundred-year-old fake. An eighteenth-century attempt 
at thirteenth-century language, raised in memory of the grand out- 
law of all outlaws, Robin Heud. It had been built by a very upper 
class and very law abiding gentleman whose wealth was founded on 
repressive land laws whose spirit that great outlaw had continually 
and repeatedly broken. But so redolent of the spirit of Robin, Earl 
of the Woods, was this grave, and so precise in its position in a cor- 
ner of the old Kirklees Priory (where, the legend says, he was evilly 
and purposely bled to death by the prioress,) that it made absolutely 
no difference whether it were fake or no. Robin Hood’s grave was an 
accepted fact to us locals, though most had never been there or had 
visited it only through the dispensations of childhood, stealing through 
wall and wood to arrive in the dark corner of the private enclosure 
for a first time, awed and astonished to discover the old script. 

Freedom and the Outlaw 

As a child, before I really knew there was labor to be done in 
the world, or work, or responsibility, or how compelled and con- 
strained adult life was by the necessities of providing, I walked those 
paths in the Hartshead landscape with Robin Locksley as a familiar 
presence. Not at first as a companion, but as encounter, a fleeting 
image: someone at the edge of the wood, glimpsed then gone, a 
deeper shadow on the floor of the bluebell copse, a silhouette in the 
slow creeping dark of childhood evenings, when I should be home. 
He was someone met on the path suddenly, a moment of confronta- 
tion in the eye, then away, back into history, more a haunting than a 
real history. 

1 16 2 ] 


As I grew out of my childhood and began to understand that 
growing into the world might mean growing into a job of work, that 
as my young man’s idea of myself became ever more focused, so did 
the harsh spotlight of responsibility seem to illuminate my image, I 
began to have a deeper sense of what had made his story and his 
image so abiding to me. I grew away from the child’s story of Robin 
Heud and I grew and traveled away from this Yorkshire landscape, 
but as I grew older and came to understand more of work and the 
life of work and the way that life is contained and ordered in adult- 
hood — how it can trap and compromise us as much as embolden 
and in our worst imprisonments, through overwork, create a kind 
of postmodern serfdom — I have grown back toward my childhood 
image of that medieval outlaw and outsider, and see him now at the 
corner of the path in woods, about to disappear, but beckoning me, 
simply by turning, to follow. 

It seems to me that each of us must identify in our personal 
history those who represented freedom in the world, those who 
managed to live just outside the rules, who seemed not beholden to 
the forces that held others in place. I am not speaking of literal 
criminal activity (though, in times of war or when great individual 
human freedoms have been under threat the breaking of imposed 
laws has always been a real necessity), but of someone who seemed 
to exude freedom by the way they lived, who was not a slave to all 
the truths repeated so easily by others, who had a breath of spon- 
taneity in their lives. 

The law-abiding citizen in each of us is necessary, of course, 
for holding often quite precarious societal bonds together, and for 
stopping ourselves, when patience snaps, from doing violence to one 
another. We have only to look at the difficulties engulfing post-Soviet 

[16 3 1 

David W h 

y t e 

Russia to see what happens when the rule of law is taken into the 
hands of business and political mafias. But in a way these were 
exactly the conditions that my medieval outlaw was attempting to 
flee. The basis of Robin’s outlaw legend was that he fled the cruel 
sanctions of an overbearing land-owning mafia who forbade almost 
any activity that could better the lot of individual people. Even 
gathering wood from the forest to warm a cottage was often out- 
lawed. In times of exploitation and intolerable conditions, a mere 
unthinking and dutiful application to the laws that create those con- 
ditions is a gospel of despair. 

These medieval conditions may seem far removed from today’s 
workplace, but we can see many parallels in the postmodern business 
world. There is an equivalent form of serfdom in our organizational 
life, except now the poverty and hopelessness lie in our lack of time 
and spaciousness and wherewithal to gain it back from the entities 
that demand so much from us in order to ensure our spending power, 
our promotions, and our participation. Of course, corporate entities 
are not abstracts working their evil way on us. We ourselves have 
helped to form them and helped to create them in our own image. 

We are called Homo sapiens, which in Greek means wise 
human being, but perhaps, more true to our nature, we should be 
called Homo forgettens, because the capacity of human beings to for- 
get what they are about in their work irrespective of whether they 
are successful is one of our great and abiding features. We can spend 
a third of our lives preparing ourselves for our work, and find our- 
selves forgetting the original inspiration behind all that preparation 
the moment we take a seat at our new desk. 

The Greeks seemed to intuit the central importance of Mem- 

1 16 4 ] 


ory and made her the mother of all the nine muses, implying that 
the nine different forms of creativity all somehow have their birth in 
memory. Here the Greeks were talking about memory not as memo- 
rization but as the deep memory of what it means to be fully human 
in a world that is grander than any human can conceive and more 
important, the deep memory of what it means to be this particular 
human being living in this particular world of suffering and loss. 
Somehow, whatever creative powers we have in our work are inti- 
mately connected to our ability to remember who we are amidst 
the traumas and losses of existence. All of our great literary tra- 
ditions emphasize again and again the central importance of this 
dynamic: that there are tremendous forces at work upon us, trying 
to make us like everyone else, and therefore we must remember 
something intensely personal about the way we were made for this 
world in order to keep our integrity. 

One of the distinguishing features of any courageous human 
being is the ability to remain unutterably themselves in the midst of 
conforming pressures. The surprising realization is that our friends 
can try to make us conform as much as our worst enemies. The 
excuses to fall away, to lose courage, to be other than ourselves are 
ever present and incredibly intimate. There seems to be no profes- 
sion exempt from these warping forces, whether we are dry- 
walling or day trading or doctoring. 

Here is one Doctor Lydgate in particular, under the formid- 
able scrutiny of George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch. Lydgate 
begins with an original approach to medicine and a strong youthful 
idealism, but Eliot lays out the danger awaiting him from the very 
beginning of Lydgate’s career. 

[ / 6 S ] 

David W h 

y t e 

For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their 
vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the 
same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good 
number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter 
the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after 
the average and ft to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever 
told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in 
generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of 
other useful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a 
ghost in its old home . . . Nothing in the world more subtle 
than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning 
they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of 
our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our con- 
forming falsities or drew our silly conclusions . . . 

Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures, and 
there was the better hope of him because his scientifc interest 
soon took the form of professional enthusiasm: he had a youth- 
ful belief in his bread-winning work, not to be stifed . . . 
and he carried to his studies in London, Edinburgh, and Paris, 
the conviction that the medical profession as it might be was 
the finest in the world; presenting the most perfect inter- 
change between science and art; offering the most direct 
alliance between intellectual conquest and the social good. 

By chapter 76 we are witness to Lydgate’s capitulation after a 
long grinding down; he has made a very bad marriage to a woman 
who has no understanding of his calling and who refuses to see his 
work as anything but a means of providing. After years of struggle 
he gives up under the unremitting pressure. Here he is confessing 

l l 6 6] 


his fall to Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is the epitome of integrity, 
memory, and patient courage in the book, so that in effect, Lydgate 
is confessing to an inner, former courageous self about what he feels 
he must do. 

It is very clear to me that I must not count on anything else 
than getting away from Middlemarch as soon as I can manage 
it. ... I must do as other men do, and think what will please 
the world and bring in money; look for a little opening in the 
London crowd, and push myself; set up in a watering-place, 
or go to some southern town where there are plenty of idle 
English, and get myself puffed, — that is the sort of shell I 
must creep into and try to keep my soul alive in. 

Most of us are rarely so honest about such an inner betrayal or 
the way we can make our work into a shell into which we then crawl . 
We are much more likely to follow the path of self-justification, 
adding the reasons slowly, layer upon layer, as to why it is no longer 
possible to live the life we desire, until our self-justifications are 
more real than the work itself. We might be better to look it in the 
face, like Lydgate, and through that honesty, unlike Lydgate, bring 
our powers to bear on the remedy to our sickness. 

Middlemarch was written in the 1870s, but the novel speaks 
just as eloquently to the same work struggles of today’s doctors. On 
the east side of Lake Washington, near Seattle, there is an astonish- 
ing concentration of wealth centered on the Microsoft headquarters 
in Redmond. Microsoft millionaires are numerous and an enormous 
part of the local economy and unfortunately, the local housing mar- 
ket. For many local doctors who joined the profession expecting a 

[16 7 ] 



certain social standing to accompany their medical ideals, it has 
come as a rude shock to find that no matter how hard they work 
they find it increasingly difficult to keep themselves in the manner 
to which they thought they should become accustomed. Large 
houses are beyond their means; hourly billing is no substitute for 
share options in one of the mightiest companies on earth. In order 
to keep up the outer material life they feel is their due, many of 
them load their practices and billable hours to a point which their 
human frames or their families can only just physically bear. The 
money flows in but the energy in their work flows out, out of their 
bodies, their conversations, their hopes, and their dreams. Eventu- 
ally their ideals break under the weight of social expectation. Bitter- 
ness, ennui, and self-righteousness creep in. They lose the immense 
sense of gift freighted in the art of doctoring itself: the daily privi- 
lege of being invited to the threshold of their patients’ most inti- 
mate struggles. 

This difficulty among doctors is not confined to the east side 
of Seattle. One family practitioner, a friend of mine, was driving on 
a wooded road in northern Michigan toward another long day’s 
work, feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders; she had 
suddenly realized that to cover her overhead of office, staff, and 
malpractice insurance, she needed to bring in $160,000 a year 
before she could even buy herself a sandwich or a soda. She was 
slowly but inexorably wilting under the load, as was her sense of 
application to medicine; she stopped, faced up to the dynamic, sim- 
plified everything to get back to the heart of the matter, and saved 
her life. She resigned her position in the clinic for which she 
worked, moved to a smaller, slightly less imposing building, pro- 

\ 1 6 8 ] 


cured good secondhand equipment, shared a secretary with another 
doctor, and worked fewer hours. She found herself better off both 
financially and mentally, with more sense of repose where it mat- 
tered; in conversation with real human beings with real concerns 
about their well-being. 

The real well-being of our person, whether it is in conver- 
sation with our doctor over the direction of our health or in conver- 
sation with ourselves over the direction of our life, is measured by a 
sense of freedom and spaciousness. Good health confers a sense of 
participation in everything around us, as does good work. Sickness 
is exile, in work and in play. In order to continually reimagine our- 
selves through our work lives, we must have a part of us that 
belongs to something beyond the status quo. Something over the 
horizon or, paradoxically, beneath us, in the ground of our life. 
Something as yet hidden, yet be brought to light. Something which 
is governed by other laws than the ones we so assiduously obey 
every day. Something to do with the laws that govern the way we 
belong to this stubborn and beautiful world. 


That day I saw beneath dark clouds 

the passing light over the water 

and I heard the voice oj the world speak out, 

I knew then, as I had before, 
life is no passing memory of what has been 
nor the remaining pages in a great hook 
waiting to be read. 

116 9 ] 



It is the opening of eyes long closed. 

It is the vision of far-off things 
seen for the silence they hold. 

It is the heart after years 

of secret conversing 

speaking out loud in the clear air. 

It is Moses in the desert 
fallen to his knees before the lit bush. 

It is the man throwing away his shoes 
as if to enter heaven 
andfnding himself astonished, 
opened at last, 

fallen in love with solid ground. 

— D.W. 

God’s utterance is heard from the burning bush, telling Moses 
to take off his shoes. “You are standing on holy ground,” the voice 
insists. I have always been compelled by the immensity of this bibli- 
cal image and have long thought that Moses’ revelation was not the 
immediate shock of hearing God’s voice from the bush but the 
moment he looked down and realized not only that he stood in 
God’s presence but that he had been standing in that presence all of 
his life. Every step of his life had been on holy ground. The outlaw 
from Egypt was an outlaw because he had always felt the call of a 
higher legislation. 

Once, after I recited The Opening of Eyes at a Boston reading, a 
Hasidic student approached me as 1 left the stage and asked if I knew 

[ / 7 0 ] 


the original translation of God’s words to Moses. The question was 
rhetorical, and I waited with some fascination for the translation to 
be supplied. “The verb that God used when he asked Moses to 
remove his shoes was the ancient word for an animal shedding its 
skin. God said, ‘Shed your shoes.’” 

The image seems true to me. Like most of the creatures of 
creation, we humans go through a periodic molt, except that our 
molt is an invisible one and because of the lonely invisibility of the 
transformation, necessitates a particular form of courage, a courage 
we are never sure we have in our possession. Shedding the carapace 
we have been building so assiduously on the surface, we must by 
definition give up exactly what we thought was necessary to protect 
us from further harm. Words will not convey that vulnerability to 
others; action is often inappropriate, neither can any evidence be 
proffered that you will grow beyond the line of your old shell. We 
find ourselves in the desert without food, water, or shelter. The 
frontier occurs in that desert, alone, the events fiery, clothed in a 
radical language and in a simplicity that frightens us. 

It is Moses in the desert 
Jallen to his knees before the lit bush. 

In a sense, at crucial and difficult thresholds in our life, the 
part of us that is most at home is the part of us that for most of the 
time has no home at all. The part of us that lives outside the normal 
rules. If we have no familiarity with this outlaw portion of ourselves 
in the normality of the everyday, then it can be very difficult to 
bring it to the fore when in the raw times of difficult change it is 
most needed. 

[17 1 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

Why are the stakes so high in our work? Why do we work long 
hours, ignore our children, neglect our spouse, spend enormous 
amounts of time away from home, and, at our worst, stoop to theft, 
bribery, threats, and bullying to get things done? Somewhere in the 
midst of work is a hidden trove of imaginative treasure that we hope 
can give us self-respect, independence, and the ease we desire. But 
to grasp any of these qualities is to attempt to touch the essence of 
freedom, and freedom can rarely be obtained by using methods and 
bully-boy tactics that imprison us by their very use. The outlaw is 
the radical, the one close to the roots of existence. The one who 
refuses to forget their humanity and in remembering, helps every- 
one else to remember, too. 

To live with courage in any work or in any organization, we 
must know intimately the part of us that does not give a damn about 
the organization or the work. That knows how to live outside the 
law as well as within it. We do this not to create a veneer of protec- 
tion through cynicism, but so that we can meet the powerful struc- 
tures that inform our existence on equal terms, and in a real 
conversation of equals. In a conversation of equals, there is all to 
play for. Something can occur that neither side could anticipate; 
predictability, routinization, boredom, and powerlessness are all in 
abeyance. With a healthy outlaw approach, we are outside the laws 
of predictable cause and effect and inside the intensity of creative 
originality. We have a gleam in our eye; we look to the edges of 
things; no one really knows what we are up to. We see with the eyes 
of those who do not quite belong. We are dangerous again, and glad 
to be so. 

I 1 7 2 ] 


A Marriage with Silence: 

Escaping the Prison of Time and Work 

Our hours are numerous on this earth, but a real appreciation for 
most of those hours is rare. Our overemphasis on the productions 
of time and motion obscures the magic and spaciousness of the 
hours themselves, which are born again and again irrespective of 
whether they are worked or no. When we work only to do, we most 
often find ourselves helplessly doing again without having placed 
the first doing in any context. When doing is followed immediately 
on doing it can seem impossible or indulgent to celebrate any ac- 
complishment. One set of good figures can be replaced by another 
on the company ledger and the bottomless hunger of Wall Street is 
still not appeased, the investors still unsatisfied, the media on the 
hunt for faults and cracks. What has been done is simply replaced by 
a new thing to be done; the years fly by until that strange day when 
all the doing suddenly has to stop; in retirement, in illness, in 
bereavement, in death itself. Without an appreciation of the hours 
of life, we are simply a target for our own incoming death, which 

[17 3 ] 

David Whyte 

approaches us like a missile programmed to the signature of our 
own fears. Living the hours spaciously, where we actually have a 
relationship with silence and timelessness, death is more like a diffi- 
cult conversation that we join voluntarily, and in a good death — as 
in a good life — we have a hand in shaping that conversation. 

Without the timelessness of the hours, celebration, rhythm 
and anticipation disappear from our work life; we lose the sense of 
music in our lives. As if a symphony, with all its rests, attenuated 
beats, and rhythms, suddenly had all silence between the notes 
removed, leaving the notes undifferentiated, crushed and bruised, 
each sound pressed into the next. Without silence work is not music, 
but a mechanical hum, like an old refrigerator, the white background 
noise corroding our attempts at a real conversation and only noticed 
in the reverberating kitchen, when it finally brings itself to a stop. 

This perverse relationship with time is not confined to 
present-day life. The poet Rilke, speaking from the much quieter 
beginning of the twentieth century, saw our difficulties with the 
hours as an ancient human struggle. To give meaning to the hours, 
he felt, we must always give as much weight to the space between 
events as the events themselves. 

My life is not this steeply sloping hour 
in which you see me hurrying. 

Much stands behind me; I stand before it like a tree; 

I am only one of my many mouths, 

and at that, the one that will be still the soonest. 

I am the rest between two notes, 
which are somehow always in discord 

[ 17 4 ] 


because Death’s note wants to climb over — 
but in the dark interval, reconciled, 
they stay there trembling, 

And the song goes on, beautiful. 

— R ainer Maria Rilke 
Translated by Robert Bly 

Rilke looks at the narrow human need to concentrate on the 
notes in music, the events of life, the foreground in the picture, 
until the larger canvas disappears and robs the foreground event of 
its significance, its rest and its breath. To find our creative powers in 
the time-bound world of work, Rilke insists that our inspiration is 
literally dependent on our expiration, strangely, on the letting go of 
significance, on the entry into the silence between the notes, so that 
the accomplishments of the day can stand against a grander, more 
spacious background. 

I am the rest between two notes, 
which are somehow always in discord 
because Death’s note wants to climb over — 
but in the dark interval, reconciled, 
they stay there trembling, 

And the song goes on, beautiful. 

The serial events of our busy lives look very different from the 
perspective of the deathbed. We experience then, not clear-cut 
moments, but tonalities, emotional presences, the eternal spread- 
ing out in ripples from the tiny dropped stone of the remembered 
moment. We are each surrounded by an enormous silence that can 

[ 1 7 5 ] 

David Whyte 

be a blessing and a help to us, a silence in which the skein of reality 
is knitted and unraveled to be knit again, in which the perspectives 
of work can be enlarged and enriched. Silence is like a cradle hold- 
ing our endeavors and our will; a silent spaciousness sustains us in 
our work and at the same time connects us to larger worlds that, in 
the busyness of our daily struggle to achieve, we have not yet inves- 
tigated. Silence is the soul’s break for freedom. 

Creation and Creativity 

Human beings left to their own devices — a very rare event — 
seem to work according to the quality of a given season and learn 
similarly in cycles. Good work and good education are achieved by 
visitation and then absence, appearance and disappearance. Most 
people who exhibit a mastery in a work or a subject have often left 
it completely for a long period in their lives only to return tor 
another look. Constant busyness has no absence in it, no openness 
to the arrival of any new season, no birdsong at the start of its day. 
Constant learning is counterproductive and makes both ourselves 
and the subject stale and uninteresting. 

Our relationship to time has become corrupted exactly 
because we allow ourselves very little experience of the timeless. 
We speak continually of saving time, but time in its richness is most 
often lost to us when we are busy without relief. At speed, the 
world becomes a blur, and all those other lives we encounter that 
are not our own become another blur too. Our hours of work and 
our traveling to work are getting longer and longer, but at the same 

l 17 6 ] 


time our perception of those hours becomes shorter and shorter: 
short, abstract and ungraspable. We speak of stealing time as if it no 
longer belonged to us. We speak ot needing time as if it wasn’t around 
us already in every moment. We want to make time for ourselves as if 
it were in our power to do so. Time is the conversation with absence 
and visitation, the frontier between ourselves and those we love; the 
hours become ripe with happening only when we are attentive, 
patient, and present. 

The Difficulty of Time 

The commute is stop-and-go, stop-and-go, and even in the 
smooth encapsulation of our car we find it hard to ease ourselves 
into the world. We look out through the steady movement of the 
wipers clearing the rain methodically from our windshield and see 
hundreds of others, all going the same somewhere through the same 
downpour, and all wanting to be somewhere other than this gray 
no-place. We press the accelerator and surge into the next moment, 
but already we are stopped again, and want to be gone from all this 
stopping. We want to pass the car ahead, the hour ahead, the day 
ahead. When time is only for going and doing then our bodies are 
slowly bred into the perception that life and work itself is a form of 
commute, the whole day a traveling to and from, with the arrival 
rarely to be seen. The hours, we begin to feel, are not alive, but 
something to be filled, done with, and then discarded. When we fall 
to bed exhausted, we almost always rise exhausted; how we enter 
the hours is how we emerge from them. Just as we tell ourselves we 

[17 7 ] 

David Whyte 

must take time for our relationship or marriage, we must encourage 
ourselves to take time for the marriage with time itself. 

Our marriage with time, especially in our work, is almost in 
the final stages of complete divorce and is the cause of as many 
individual tragedies as the breakdown of a real flesh-and-blood mar- 
riage. The endpoint is the same: Cast out from the luxuriant friend- 
ship and ease of the hours, we feel a blankness, a sameness, an 
aloneness, a lack of sense to all our doings and even our accomplish- 
ments. We attend the hushed memorial service for a dead friend 
and find the list of his achievements moves no one in the assembly, 
but the atmosphere does quicken in the crowded room when his 
daughter speaks of all the many things he loved and everything and 
everyone he held in his affections. The dogs, the chopping of wood, 
the homemade telescopes, the sunsets from the porch, his daugh- 
ter’s children, the jokes that enlivened the long meetings at work. 
There is laughter, surprise, revelation. Suddenly we know who we 
have lost, as if identity in the great measuring moment of its loss is 
based only on what we have loved and held in our affections and all 
the rest is chaff to be blown away by the arrival of death. Love is the 
measure of identity because in love is the timeless and untram- 
meled, the presence of things, the hours illuminated and celebrated 
like the steeple bell across the fields, filling the hollows and the hot 
afternoon to the brim. Death taps us on the shoulder and asks us to 
encapsulate a life by its loves. Death is not impressed by what we 
have done, unless what we have done leaves a legacy of life; death’s 
tide washes over everything we have taken so long to write in the 
sand. What is remembered in all our work is what is still alive in the 
hearts and minds of others. 

[17 8 ] 


The Hours Are Alive 

Most traditional human cultures have seen the hours of the 
days in the same way as they have encountered the seasons of the 
year: not as clear lines drawn across our experience, but as an 
advancing quality, a presence, a visitation, and an emergence of 
something growing inside us as much as it is growing in the outer 
world. A season or an hour of the day is a visitation whose return is 
not always assured. Every spring following a long winter feels as 
miraculous as if we are seeing it for the first time. Out of the dead 
garden rises abundance beyond a winter eye’s comprehension. 

The hours and the seasons are sometimes a flowering, some- 
times a disappearance, and often an indistinguishable transience 
between the two, but all the hours of the day and the seasons of the 
year enunciate some quality in the world that has its own time and 
place. To make friends with the hours is to come to know all the 
hidden correspondences inside our own bodies that match the rich- 
ness and movement of life we see around us. The tragedy of con- 
stant scheduling in our work is its mechanical effect on the hours, 
and subsequently on our bodies, reducing the spectrum of our indi- 
vidual character and color to a gray sameness. Every hour left to 
itself has its mood and difference, a quality that should change us 
and re-create us according to its effect upon us. 

In many traditional cultures, a particular hour of the day is 
seen to have a personal, almost angelic presence, something that 
might be named — though only in hushed tones, and only in ways 
that reinforce its unknowingness. The Benedictine, Brother David 
Steindl-Rast, defines an angel as the eternal breaking into time, 

117 9 ] 

David Whyte 

each particular breakthrough of the numinous utterly extraordinary 
and utterly itself. Time and each hour of time is a season, almost a 
personality, with its own annunciation, its own song, its whispering 
of what is to be born in us. Its appearance like a new conversation in 
which we are privileged to overhear ourselves participating. 

To escape from the prison of time is to grant the hours their 
own life; to uncurl the iron grip of our hand on any given moment 
while at the same time finding the ability to be more present, more 
robust, more open to our own self-evident absurdities, while con- 
tinuing the conversation. A healthy relationship with time is an 
exact template of a healthy relationship between two human beings. 
When we make a good marriage with time, we instantly apprentice 
ourselves to the improvement of our character just as we do marry- 
ing another person. Not because the other person is more virtuous 
than we, or because we have a target personality we are trying to 
hit, but because whatever sanity, patience, generosity and creative 
genius we are able to achieve in life is not solely within our own 
remit. It comes from a real conversation with something other than 
ourselves. No matter what the New Age gurus may say, we do not 
make our own reality. We have a modest part in it, depending on 
how alive we are to the way the currents and eddies of time are run- 
ning. Reality is the conversation between ourselves and the never 
ending productions of time. The closer we are to the source of the 
productions of time — that is, to the eternal — the more easily we 
understand the particular currents we must navigate on any given 
day. The river of time can suddenly turn, for instance, from a happy, 
easy flow to turmoil when, in the midst of everything, the boss asks 
us if we will take on a particular project that we know we cannot do 
with any sanity given all our present commitments; bereft of spa- 

118 0 ] 


ciousness, we say yes, trying to establish our identity through doing, 
afraid of the silence that might open in the presence of this figure of 
authority. Hounded by time, we feel hounded by others, but open 
to the spaciousness and silence, we can actually become fascinated 
by the silence that ensues from a pleasant but firm refusal. From the 
outside, our refusal looks like courage, but on the inside, it is simply 
representative of a healthy relationship with time. With regard to 
our marriage with time, to say yes would be the equivalent of 
promiscuity, of faithlessness and betrayal. Stress means we have 
committed adultery with regard to our marriage with time. If we 
want to understand the particulars of our reality, we must under- 
stand the way we conduct our daily relationship with the hours. In 
the hours is the secret to the workday, and in every workday the 
manner of our marriage to the hours and subsequently, our journey 
through the day, is crucial to the happiness we desire. 

118 1 l 


Crossing the Unknown Sea: 

A Voyage Through the Hours of the Day 

The Hours of the Night 

The temptation is to begin a voyage through the day with the 
hours of the dawn, but perhaps the workday begins where there is 
no day and no work at all, in the hidden hours of the night. Even 
awake in the dark, looking toward the shadowed ceiling, our surface 
sense of self unravels to a strange but familiar vulnerability. Once 
actually fallen to sleep, we enter a twilight world of dream where 
our normally controlled work personalities involve themselves 
with everything and everyone in ways that would astonish our 
waking, working friends. We wake in the distant hotel room in a 
confused sea of half-remembered dreams, involuntary body move- 
ments, and strange groans and noises. Our first reflection in the 
mirror has us searching for someone we can recognize. The person 
staring back at us looks nothing like the professional personality we 
present to the world. We rub our eyes and yawn, rejuvenated or 

[18 2 ] 


exhausted, passionate or puzzled, slowly entering the strangeness 
of another day. Forty-five minutes later, we find ourselves in the 
conference room with all the others: calm, collected, and well 
groomed, as if nothing had happened to anyone, as if no one had vis- 
ited this other astonishing, parallel, physically demanding world we 
call sleep. 

We say a personjalls to sleep as if intuiting the physical loss of 
control involved: the extraordinary sense of descent, of depth, and 
of disappearance. Sleep is intimacy and vulnerability; we define one 
of the ultimate human intimacies by saying two people slept 
together as if knowing that the vulnerability and mutual embrace of 
sleep is the defining closeness as much as the physical act of making 
love. In sleep, the face relaxes as it does when we die. In sleep, the 
underlying territory of the face is exposed, showing the innocence, 
the ease, and the trouble all at once, hidden under the surface toil. 
The presence of an innocent sleeping face causes us instinctively to 
tiptoe, to quieten, and to speak in hushed tones, as if the face has 
returned to a childhood presence whose spell could be broken 
by waking. Sleep is re-creation, integration, renewal and remem- 
bering, as our intuitions and increasingly our science confirms. The 
vast hormonal and physiological changes a person undergoes in 
that descent and disappearance are essential to everything in 
their waking day. Without sleep, without absence, without disap- 
pearance and reappearance, we lose our minds, our intellects, our 
sense of presence, and ultimately our physical bodies. To paraphrase 
Sun Tzu in his Art of War, when the going gets tough, the tough do 
not get going; they disappear, only to reappear again, renewed and 

[18 3 ] 

David Whyte 

Friendship with the Night 

Sleep and darkness have a primacy in our lives which is essen- 
tial; yet we often see night and sleep referred to as time taken away 
from us, time wasted, a state only to be appreciated for what it sub- 
sequently brings to us in the following day. What would night be 
like seen on its own terms? Almost a third of our lives are spent in 
this uncontrollable, hard-to-define realm. In the same way Rilke 
saw silence and timelessness as qualities that were absolutely neces- 
sary in order to live well within the measured hours, he saw dark- 
ness as pure possibility and a quality which stood nobly by itself, not 
needing the definitions of usefulness we need in the day. 

Rilke imagines a small fire seen at a distance by night, where 
darkness fills almost the whole canvas of vision. He realizes that 
even with just a pinprick of light visible in this huge expanse, we 
humans want to define the infinity of the canvas through that one 
easily referenced point of illumination. Of course, our refusal to 
embrace that black unknown is a function of the ancient fears we 
carry of darkness, and we do well to have feared it at times. Our 
evolutionary bodies remember the big cats and growling creatures 
with better eyes than ours and bigger, sharper, teeth; but Rilke asks 
us to reclaim the universe of the night from these old fears, to join a 
conversation with the not yet brought to light, and to make a friend 
of the unknown. 


You darkness, from which 1 come, 

I love you more than all the f res 

[18 4 ] 


that fence out the world, 
for the f re makes a circle 
for everyone 

so that no one sees you any more. 

But darkness holds it all: 
the shape and the fame, 
the animal and myself; 
how it holds them, 
all powers, all sight — 

and it is possible: its great strength 
is breaking into my body. 

I have faith in the night. 

— R ainer Maria Rilke 
Translated by D. W. 

To have faith in the night means we have a secret loyalty to 
things other than those that are so slavishly celebrated by all the oth- 
ers in the day. In the surface conversation of our colleague we listen 
for the undercurrent; the persistent tug and ebb that tells us she is 
actually going in the opposite direction to her speech. Beneath the 
surface of our morning commute we realize that something is tak- 
ing us away in the opposite direction, that wants not just another 
job but another life. Watching the newscast, we realize this news is 
no news at all but someone else’s priorities centered mostly in 
extremely perverse ways on the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones. A 
friendship with the night means we are impatient with propaganda, 

[ 1 * 5 ] 



manipulation, advertising, the overilluminated and over-stated. We 
become immensely tired of hearing, from those who have no time 
in their own lives to stop and think deeply, that this is the age of 

This is not 

the age of information. 

This is not 

the age of information. 

Forget the news 

and the radio 

and the blurred screen. 

This is the time 
of loaves 

People are hungry, 
and one good word is bread 
for a thousand. 

— D.W. 

All attempts at spiritual sophistication aside, the man in his 
forties rests into an image he loved as a seven-year-old: the child 
opening his basket to feed the multitudes. Out of the covered night 
and the imagination of the night, images that are true to our struggles 

[18 6 ] 


emerge and annunciate themselves. Amidst the plethora of infor- 
mation clawing at us from the insistent radio in the morning to the 
irrelevant television of the evening, we search for the one word that 
will knit sense out of nonsense. The unknown is the dark basket into 
which we plunge our hands to bring out words that feed the hungry 
and clothe the poor — as good a definition of poetry as we might 
find. The night is where we go to make sense of the day. Like a mar- 
riage healed slowly by a long midnight conversation in a darkened 

Night and sleep have a place in our lives equal to our attempts 
to control the day; we should be suspicious of all those currently 
boasting they need little sleep or little rest. They are by definition 
not to be trusted — they have no place for the unknown in them. 
The night sustains our humanity, our sense of ease, and our sense of 
compassion. Without a heartfelt sojourn in the night, the day dawns 
as just another box to be filled, like every other day. 

To bring meaning to our day of work, we treat the night with 
respect, prepare for sleep as we would for anything worthwhile, 
enter it with awareness, leave it conscious of everything we carry 
from it into the heart of a day, where work can make sense. 

Waking at Dawn 

A good waking is a waking full of hearing, subtle seeing, and 
anticipation: the birdsong outside the house, the luminous tone of 
the first spring light through shutters, or the sight of a partner’s face 
familiar and coming slowly to life again. A good waking has us lis- 
tening and seeing in such a way that we are not immediately the 

[ 1 * 7 ] 



center of the world, where we have time for the blessing of things as 
they are. A good waking is a spacious entry into a day where we are 
especially free from everything that needs to be done. Sometimes 
we are left thankfully alone to appreciate that spaciousness; we 
are the monk rising immediately and prayerfully, walking toward 
morning service; more often we have to struggle for it while be- 
sieged by others. The child pulls unforgivingly at our protruding 
leg. “Wake up, Daddy, wake up, wake up!” It’s easy to be caught by 
the classic images of contemplation. Most parents, of course, have 
not taken monastic vows and for a father or mother, the first prayer 
is the act of paying attention to the newly woken child, to the happi- 
ness or unhappiness of their waking. 

I remember being woken one morning by the cries of my 
three-year-old daughter, distraught by a dream, and thinking, as I 
comforted her, that this was just the beginning of her long appren- 
ticeship to waking. I took her in my arms and cradled her as she fell 
back to a better sleep, and imagined a lifetime of wakings ahead of 
her: sometimes to losses that will not go away no matter how many 
times she falls asleep again; sometimes to the world in happy antici- 
pation; many times to a gray sameness through which she must fight 
to regain her life. We should apprentice ourselves to coming awake, 
treat it as a form of mastery. The threshold of waking, the entry to 
the day, is the musician’s foot lifted to begin the beat. Miss that beat 
and you will have to come to a stop and start again. The dash and 
flare of the day comes from that foot hitting the floor after the cor- 
rect restful anticipation. Sometimes a prayerful, painful approach to 
a difficult day may mean stopping and starting a hundred times, 
until we learn, like a virtuoso, the thorough, attentive, rhythmic 
presence of the true musician. 

[18 8 ] 


Morning Mood 

Waking almost always means a morning conversation with 
ourselves in the mirror, even if the words are unsaid and the conver- 
sation takes place only through groans and grimaces and the rub- 
bing of our face into some form of aliveness. We greet that face 
again, slightly older by a day, or rejuvenated by new love or new 
possibility; we look hard for who is there, and gaze into the mirror 
as if seeing ourselves for the first time. This conversation can be 
comic or confrontational, or it can be deep and meditative, another 
prayer to set the day to rights. The following piece is a morning con- 
versation on both the meditative and confrontational side of things, 
I wrote it as an admonition to myself. 


In thatfrst 
hardly noticed 

in which you wake, 
coming back 
to this life 
from the other 
more secret, 
and frighteningly 

where everything 

[18 9 ] 

David Whyte 


there is a small 

into the new day 
which closes 
the moment 
you begin 
your plans. 

What you can plan 
is too small 
for you to live. 

What you can live 
will make plans 

for the vitality 
hidden in your sleep. 

To be human 
is to become visible 
while carrying 
what is hidden 
as a gift to others. 

To remember 
the other world 

[19 0 ] 


in this world 
is to live in jour 
true inheritance. 

You are not 
a troubled guest 
on this earth, 
you are not 
an accident 
amidst other accidents 
you were invited 
from another and greater 

than the one 
from which 
you have just emerged. 

Now, looking through 
the slanting light 
of the morning 
window toward 
the mountain 
of everything 
that can be, 
what urgency 
calls you to your 
one love? What shape 

[19 1 ] 

David Whyte 

waits in the seed 
of you to grow 
and spread 
its branches 
against a future sky? 

Is it waiting 
in the fertile sea? 

In the trees 
beyond the house? 

In the life 
you can imagine 
for yourself? 

In the open 

and lovely 

white page 

on the waiting desk? 

For another person, the conversation of the morning might be 
completely different, involving other kinds of faith that I as an indi- 
vidual find neither possible nor desirable for myself; but each of us 
has an intuitive picture of the world and the way we ourselves were 
made for that world, an intuitive grasp of our place in things, which 
we can reestablish each morning and which can make us more avail- 
able, more courageous, more generous. Each of us has the equiva- 
lent of the poet’s blank page, infinite and unknown yet strangely 
definite in its invitation to the infinite. 

This was Irish poet Patrick Kavenagh’s way. 


[ 19 2 ] 


Me I will throw away 
Me sufficient for the day 
The sticky self that clings 
Adhesions on the wings 
To love and adventure, 

To go on the grand tour 
A man must be free 
From self- necessity. 

From a man who mostly wandered the grimy streets of 
working-class Dublin in the 1950s, there is an astonishing, lifting 
freedom in Kavanagh s allusion to The Grand Tour. To the sons of 
eighteenth-century British and Irish aristocracy, The Grand Tour 
was the finishing of a rich gentleman’s education; a year among the 
splendors of France, Switzerland, and Italy. But Kavenagh has en- 
nobled himself in his own imagination and sends the part of himself, 
poor as a church mouse but now nobly born into the world, to the 
farther ends of the earth. 

I will have love, have love 
From anything made of 
And a life with a shapely form 
With gaiety and charm 
And capable of receiving 
With grace the grace of living 
And wild moments too 
Self when freed from you. 

Prometheus calls me on. 

[19 3 ] 

David Whyte 

Prometheus calls me: Son, 

We’ll both go off together 
In this delightful weather. 

Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to earth; 
Kavanagh has done the same in this poem and lit up the day for him- 
self and anyone who comes across this piece of utter courage and 
un trammeled freedom. How we greet the dawn is a measure of the 
freedom we have made for ourselves. Freedom in the midst of 
imprisonment, freedom in the midst of all the catastrophes com- 
mon to the sins of humankind, the hidden made glorious by sudden 
visibility; a man giving birth to himself, walking off with his new 
son to greet the day. Suddenly, waking from the night and the diffi- 
culties of the night; The Grand Tour. 

The Glad Day 

In the old monastic day, the hours of the morning carried the 
Latin name prime, a time when work was planned, assigned, and 
begun. For most of us this is truly a prime time, when our physical 
bodies have the energy, the will and the vision to engage in the great 
conversations of life and work. One of Blake’s most famous engrav- 
ings is of a young man leaping out of the picture with a great blaze 
of light behind him, called The Glad Day. It carries enormous energy 
and youthful power, as if the youth is leaping right in our face to ask 
us what we are up to ourselves this glad day. The morning is the 
time of promise, when it feels possible to get through that pile of 
papers, write that memo, redo the design that has not yet turned 

[ 19 4 ] 


out as it should. We are all possibility, and the world should be pos- 
sibility or it dies in our hands. I remember, at twenty-one, looking 
dumbfounded at a letter telling me, against impossible odds, that I 
had won a highly prized job as a naturalist in the Galapagos islands. I 
was looking out of a Welsh cottage from high in Snowdonia, down 
the Ogwen valley, and out to the Irish Sea, holding the opened let- 
ter in my hands. I felt like the youth in Blake’s painting, about to 
leap out of the small frame of my life. 

Looking back to that younger self in the sunlit cottage room, 
holding the letter in belief and disbelief, I think of the remarkable 
qualities of that morning moment. Everyone should have at least 
one time in their life when they feel chosen, wanted, held up for 
some kind of special treatment. The times are rare, life is short, oth- 
ers have only a given amount of real need and generosity. It is good 
to be philosophical when we are not chosen, but it is a vital, pre- 
cious, almost scintillating thing to be young, to be excited, to be 
wanted specifically for some task, and to feel a possible dream is on 
the edge of fulfillment. It is vital for there to be an experience of 
morning in our lives and for this experience to be called on in the 
memory of other, more difficult mornings to come. There is no 
mercy in this world if at least once in our lives we do not feel the 
privilege of being wanted where we also want to be wanted . 

Morning is the result of two opposing currents meeting and 
mixing — night and day, rest and potential — and like living systems 
flowering into life, where cold, oxygen-rich waters meet a warmer, 
more nutrient-laden current, we experience life beyond the possi- 
bility of either current alone. Here is Derek Mahon, one of the 
finest of Ireland’s contemporary poets, waking on the other side of 
the Irish Sea from that sunlit cottage, full of that possibility. 

[19 5 1 

David W h y t 


How should I not be glad to contemplate 
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window 
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling. 

There will be dying, there will be dying, 
but there is no need to go into that. 

The poems flowflrom the hand unbidden 
and the hidden source is the watchful heart. 

The sun rises in spite of everything 
and the far cities are beautiful and bright. 

I lie here in a riot of sunlight 

watching the day break and the clouds flying. 

Everything is going to be all right. 

Good poets don’t normally go in for any form of fluffy posi- 
tive thinking, so that last line is incredibly intriguing — especially 
from an Irish poet who comes from a tradition where everything 
has emphatically not been all right. You can write the line Everything 
is going to be all right only if you have earned it by first writing. 

The poems flow from the hand unbidden 
And the hidden source is the watchful heart. 

Derek Mahon’s arrival at this astonishing, creative frontier 
arises from the fact that he is all attention; he has a tremendously 
watchful heart, earned probably by all the hard writing he has done 
to get himself to this particular threshold and this particular morn- 
ing. But the hard work leavened by the rest of the previous night and 

119 6 ] 


the beauty and possibility of the coming morning makes him all 
arrival. At twenty I worked picking grapes in the mountain vine- 
yards of Crete; arriving at the farmhouse at about six in the morn- 
ing after a three-mile walk, I would join a pre-breakfast circle of 
grizzled faces, each holding a glass of intense firewater brandy; after 
a moment’s fierce gaze at one another, we would all down the liquor 
in one gulp, before setting to the communal breakfast. I still can feel 
that spreading morning glow through my chest as I bring back the 
memory. Each of us has an equivalent morning draught, whether it 
be the aroma of good coffee, a sight of the sun, a morning prayer, or 
a first hour to ourselves. 

The Privacy of Morning 

Morning is precious; morning is essentially private. Morning 
is when we come to know ourselves in the world again. No wonder, 
then, that intuiting all this morning possibility, the heart sinks at the 
thought of meeting after meeting planned through the whole of our 
hr st productive hours. 

Conversation is good; conversation can be good work; con- 
versation is an absolute necessity; meetings must meet, but all of 
our verbal conversations depend on a continuous conversation with 
the real patterns forming in an unspoken way at the center of our 
work. We need this intensely personal, private conversation with 
what we do, or none of the other outer conversations make sense. 
We need the pattern made known to us again and again in intimate 
ways that reinforce our sense of being engaged in something real. 
Meetings take patience and that patience seems to be available only 

[19 7 ] 

David W h y t 

when we have time to understand we have a place in the much 
larger world that gives any meeting room its context. In work we 
must fight for our mornings. 

There is something about the morning and morning work that 
demands a certain kind of aloneness, an ability to work into the day 
and the day’s work in our own way; to find the particular contour 
that leads us to the particular door which opens only in a very par- 
ticular way — a way which give us a sense that we are exploring the 
patterns emerging in our work according to our own nature and 
not trying to squeeze ourselves continually into an abstract box 
called a day or a job. Without a personal sense of investigation that a 
silent, spacious beginning to the day can give, we feel besieged from 
the beginning by everything and everyone in the office or the organ- 
ization that seems to stand between ourselves and everything we 
have to do. 

Good work takes patience, and our colleagues at work some- 
times seem to need even more of our patience than the work itself, 
but it is hard to have a sense of ease with others when we have no 
time in our workday for a private encounter with the frontier of our 
own lives. If we have a continual sense of being besieged in our 
labors right from the moment we walk in the door, it is a clear sig- 
nal that we lack the old hallowed office of prime in our work lives. 
Prime is the time to figure out the pattern, to settle into the details, 
to work our way into that spreadsheet, to follow the newly emerg- 
ing lines on the blank page as they form into a poem. Prime is the 
time we establish ourselves in the world on individual, equal terms. 
Once we have contact again with an essence and a sense of accom- 
plishment, then we can offer ourselves to others for conversation in 
a new way. Until then we often have little new for anyone or anything. 

[19 8 ] 


The morning can be make-or-break for many of us. I remem- 
ber sitting silently hour after hour next to an American oil execu- 
tive on a flight to Dallas from London, and the moment I said the 
first word I found myself in an intense conversation on the difficul- 
ties of his work morning. It was as if this time to himself alone on 
the plane had helped him to realize how little real time he had in his 
daily work. Recently transferred to England, he was having a 
terrible period adjusting to the open plan of his new office in cen- 
tral London. Not only was there no privacy in any corner of the 
floor, but no one had any particular desk of their own; if he arrived 
the least bit late there was not an inch of work space left and he 
would find himself wandering among the crowd until he found a 
corner in which to unpack his laptop. The tension of arrival robbed 
him of any sense of foundation for the rest of the day and any sense 
of sanity in his work. He found himself having to take his morning 
time late each evening at home, something that enabled his profes- 
sional life but robbed him and his wife of the alone time they 
needed once the children were to bed. 

Pause, Preparation, and Possibility 

How to remedy such an impossible situation? The demands of 
the corporation place us in a strange city with all of the cultural 
adjustments necessary for self and family, and then rob us of the 
clarity and space to do the work well. Whatever the outward condi- 
tions, it seems to me that we must not give up on the primacy of the 
office of morning because the other, actual office of work over- 
whelms us. Sometimes it is the physical layout of our workplace, 

[19 9 ] 

David Whyte 

sometimes it is the all too familiar personality of a coworker bear- 
ing down on us the moment we walk in the door. Somehow we have 
to find the primacy of our own experience in the midst of all the 
difficulty. We have to find a contour to walk, a place to stand, a wave 
to ride, an image from all of the many metaphors we try out that is 
right for us. We must find just a beginning step to freedom to open 
the hours of the day again. It is often a step that is both a little radi- 
cal and a little rebellious. Changing our work hours; not participat- 
ing in exactly the way they want us to participate; speaking out to 
change things. Perhaps a different form of commute that enables us 
to think on the train or has us turning off the radio in the car in 
order to take time to imagine and to plan. Perhaps a serious conver- 
sation with the overbearing colleague about our need for time to 
order our thoughts and our desk before we answer any questions 
that are not emergencies. Deep unhappiness almost always calls for 
deep preparation — preparation for speaking out, for changing the 
circumstances, for transferring, sometimes for leaving altogether. 
Life is too short and our work difficult enough without at least a 
little sense of possibility to allow the day to breathe. 

There are many, of course, who go through the revolving door 
of their workplace, month after month, sometimes year after year, 
with their stomach in a knot. If the churning sense of physical 
unease goes on too long, they begin to associate the act of work 
with unease itself. Work becomes associated literally and figura- 
tively with disease. The courage to leave or change becomes con- 
fused with their identification of all work as suffering. They feel no 
way out. Morning is to be feared. Work as suffering creates more 
suffering and initiates the slow in-breath of cynicism that begins to 
poison the individual acts of our endeavors. We lose the conversa- 

1 2 0 0 ) 


tion with what was most precious to us and become strangers to 

Shaping the Self 

In a sense, each morning is a time to get to know that strange 
thing we call a self again and, just as important, what that self is 
attempting to do with its even stranger mix of selflessness, selfish- 
ness, and self-sabotage. We shape our work, and then, not surpris- 
ingly, we are shaped again by the work we have done. Sometimes, to 
our distress, we find ourselves in a place where the work suddenly 
seems to be doing all the shaping, where we do not seem able to lift 
ourselves out of the mud of our own making, where we do not feel 
able to shape ourselves at all. At this point no strategy will free us 
from our imprisonment, no new organizer will organize us into 
something new; we need time and a renewed sense of the breadth 
and depth of time in which to do the reimagining that is the essence 
of self-shaping. It is the reimagining of ourselves in our private time 
that allows us to then reshape ourselves in conversation with the 
world. I am thinking of the way the wing of an airplane is molded so 
that any air traveled at speed round it, lifts the wing, the plane, the 
passengers, and all their heavy baggage, off the ground and sustains 
it all through tremendous distance. 


We shape ourselj 

to Jit this world 

[ 201 ] 




and by the world 
are shaped again. 

The visible 
and the invisible 

working together 
in common cause 

to produce 
the miraculous. 

1 am thinking oj the way 
the intangible air 

passed at speed 
round a shaped wing 


holds our weight. 

So may we, in this life 

to those elements 
we have yet to see 

or imagine 

and look for the true 

[ 2 0 2 ] 


shape of our own self 
by forming it well 

to the great 
intangibles about us. 

— D.W. 

Written Joi the presentation of the Collier Trophy to the Boeing 
Company marking the introduction of the new 777 jet 

Noon: The Threshold 

Between Initiation and Elaboration 

However well we fly through the morning, we are cresting 
now toward the peak of the day, and already, as if intuiting that 
things have come to a fullness that doesn’t entirely need us any- 
more, we look for a break, a lunch, a bowl of soup, another cor- 
ner other than this corner in which to sit. It is time, in the order 
of things to let everything go so that we can pick them up again 
in a very different way for the afternoon. A mechanical approach 
to the hours sees lunch only as a fuel stop, a quick bite to keep 
the body going through the rest of the day. The imaginative eye 
sees an enormous transition from initiation to elaboration. The 
morning was a beginning; the afternoon is for building upon 
whatever beginnings we have made, otherwise we don’t seem to 
have the energy for anything new. It’s the reason we don’t make 
important appointments for the afternoon unless we can help 
it. We know the person is past their best at receiving our idea 

[2 0 3] 

David Whyte 

no matter how much the energy of our presentation. We panic 
slightly if we intuit there has been no real beginning made in the 

We intuit the slowness of the post-lunch period even before 
we have taken the first bite — not surprising, as we seem to have 
evolved over hundreds of thousands of years taking sudden naps in 
the middle of the day to escape the blistering heat of the tropics. No 
amount of self-exhortation at this time of the day will entirely elim- 
inate the yawning gravitational pull of sleep and the reverie of a nec- 
essary absence on our physical systems. Whether we take wine with 
our lunch or no, our physical prime is past its best until it recovers 
again for the late afternoon. Noon is always a little difficult: We sud- 
denly feel a gnawing in the stomach, a slight irritability if the gnaw- 
ing is not addressed. We look to the door or the view outside the 
window, ready to move away from the small view of our desk. At 
noon the light flattens, giving little shadow. In hot climates, the 
birds go silent and everything looks for shelter; but even in the busy 
northern latitudes, bereft of the siesta, we can feel a form of ennui at 
the center of the day, assessing already if anything really new has 
come from our morning. We need that glimmer of light to help us 
through the afternoon. Noon is the test of our fortitude and our 
dedication to the overall path we have made for ourselves. When we 
stop doing at lunch, we have to make some sense of all the doing. 

First Things First 

I never entered poetry in order to form a thriving business, 
but a business seemed to gather around my writing and work quite 

[2 0 4 ] 


quickly. For many years 1 found it hard to admit this cuckoo in my 
poetic nest was as all-powerful as it seemed to be. I found myself 
plunging into the office first thing as if the office were my primary 
work. The rest of the day and the afternoon would have just an edge 
of panic to it, as I tried to make time amidst the growing to-do list 
to get to my writing. Many days the office overwhelmed me from 
the first moment and not a word was written, morning, noon, or 
night. Then an insistent part of me would secretly wonder if I were 
really a writer anymore or just a good businessperson living on past 

All this changed when I moved the office from the house, 
made my appearance there only after lunch at one o’clock, and gave 
the hours of the morning back over to writing. This morning move 
transformed the afternoons completely. Not only was I a writer 
again, but in my afternoon hours in the office I no longer felt as if I 
were stealing time from what was essential. For the office staff and 
my long suffering assistant, who all have their own morning priori- 
ties, I was certainly easier to work with. I became human again and 
more generous to myself and others. I was able to do the afternoon 
work wholeheartedly and with a sense that my main work had 
already been addressed. It always helps if we can arrange our work 
so that we do not make our colleagues into an enemy force who are 
out to sap our strength and steal our precious time. 

The world was set to right by putting first things first; putting 
myself at the core of things in the earlier hours of the day, in the 
afternoon I was able to enjoy and give time to the secondary elabo- 
rations of my work in all its different written and recorded forms 
and even take pleasure in the way it was packaged and went out into 
the world. The world was set to right by the prioritization of the 

[ 2 0 5 ] 

David Whyte 

morning. At noon, we come to know how well we prioritized that 
morning. If we did well we know we have a wave to ride, that our 
work was brought to life and will give us life again for the after- 
noon. If we did not, we can sometimes look forward to the P.M. as a 
long swim against the tide. 

Of course, those in structured jobs who feel there is no escape 
morning, noon or night from feeling besieged by their work may 
feel some despair at this artistic advice from a writer seemingly able 
to change his working hours at will. The main point, whatever our 
outward circumstances, is to make the morning more of our own 
in one way or another, to start the particular courageous conver- 
sations that will place our mornings more on our own terms, to 
enable the morning once again to present something of an open 
vista rather than an immediate besiegement. Each of us has the pos- 
sibility of making tiny changes that can to our surprise make huge 
differences in the first hours of our work, small changes that can 
open up a larger view once the will is there to make the morning a 
prelude to possibility rather than something that frightens us back 
into the same corner we had left just the previous day. 

In many cultures of course, lunch time is almost like an 
evening meal, an intense but beautiful ritual leading toward sleep 
and a second morning after the early-afternoon siesta. I remember 
reaching the hot noon of Crete on the terraces of the mountain 
vineyard, five hours of hard work after our morning brandy, ready 
to consume the whole contents of the massive wicker hamper the 
family would bring each day up the mountain. After real physical 
labor, a soup and sandwich will never do for the extended human 
system. Sitting under a tamarind tree, barely talking until the con- 
tents of the basket were laid out on the enormous cloth, I would lie 

[ 2 0 6 ] 


exhausted, watching the matriarch of the family place on the cloth 
sheaves of twice-baked bread, olives, salads, tomatoes, hunks of 
cheese, carafes of wine, pots of snails simmered in garlic and herbs, 
and the dark green dolmades, aromatic packages sitting in their her- 
metic seal of grape leaves and olive oil. Once the cloth was full, eat- 
ing began, followed by speech, followed by silence and the most 
intense visitations of sleep I can recall until I woke a half hour later 
looking into gnarled roots of a vine, or a face, trying to remember 
who and where I was. 

Shared Hours, Shared Labor, 

Shared Food 

The sharing of food after the intensity of the morning work is 
a worldwide phenomena. The cloth seemed no smaller and the 
dishes just as numerous in the kitchen of the Welsh sheep farm 
which became my home years later as it had in the golden hills of 
Crete. After the communal effort of bringing in 900 sheep off the 
mountains of Snowdonia and sorting them out from the hundreds 
more belonging to our neighbors, we would set to the assembled 
plates of meat pies, lamb stews, salads, breads, and glorious pud- 
dings until there was very little left to be seen but scraped white 
china. This being the northern latitudes, there was no siesta unless 
you managed to find a comfortable armchair near to the table and 
did it by accident, falling asleep while the post-lunch conversation 
went on around you. The equivalent of the siesta in the north is that 
post-lunch talk, an easeful, enjoyable buzz if the morning work has 
been good, an atmosphere of contentment all the more enjoyable 

[2 0 7 ] 



because you know it will come to an end — which it does when 
someone with the authority to do it, gives the signal to rise and 
move the body again toward the many sheep bleating in the fields 
about the house. 

These are the beauties of work, particularly physical work, 
particularly hard physical work: shared labor and then shared food 
with those with whom we have worked. It is one of the great diffi- 
culties of most work today that although we may be tired mentally 
by the nature of what we do, the tiredness we feel in our bodies is 
the tiredness of inaction, of being sat too long, rather than of actual 
physical work. Our minds are telling us to rest, but our bodies are 
still dying for something real to do. Hard physical work can actually 
feel like a holiday activity for those of us who never lift a tool in 
anger during our long workdays. It is an extra loneliness to the indi- 
vidual when their work is so specialized that it takes an enormous 
amount of energy to even begin to explain to others what they do. 
The joy of shared physical work is also the shared tiredness, the 
shared hunger, and the shared conversation about all the details of 
the work, the aches, the pains, the tool that was sharp and worked 
well and how good the broth from the stew tastes. 

I write this particular chapter in Ireland, on a friend’s farm, 
high in the Burren region of North Clare, just having come in 
from the hard job of weeding between turnip rows. No herbicides 
for the organic approach of my friend. The crook of my left thumb 
has an enormous rising blister, and my lower back has a slight but 
insistent ache, showing how unfamiliar this bending work has 
become to me, but the seat by the fire, the pleasant conversation on 
turnips, of which I know next to nothing, and the physical memory 
of working together in the late-summer light fills me with a time- 

[ 208 ] 


less, shared contentment it is hard to procure for love or money in 
any other situation. Tonight, we have been working together in 
time, but what we have done lies outside of time, has been done by 
others for thousands of years and will be done again. We have 
worked for ourselves but we have provided for others by happy 
accident: At the end of the season there will be a mound of food for 
all this work. 

The Shadows of Return 

As the shadows lengthen in the late afternoon, our own 
shadow increases and elongates with all the others. We have cast our 
outline against the day, and we have come to know not only the 
length and breadth of our achievements but also the limitations of 
what we can affect. In the late afternoon we begin to face limitation 
again, at least in our work, and the understanding that another 
attempt at the day is all but done. As evening approaches we begin 
unconsciously to assess whether we have taken another step, re- 
mained in place, or returned to familiar shadows we had hoped to 
God we could leave behind. Late afternoon is like the weather, 
changing and mercurial. It can be glowing and golden in the sum- 
mer, filling the body with contentment and ease; in winter it can be 
just as gray and loveless, a time of midlife crisis where we transist 
from what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the morning’s 
dearest freshness deep down things to the dark inevitabilities and 
taboos of evening. Early in the afternoon, our prospects for the 
evening begin to creep into and inform the hours of work. We 
might have a current of calm delight running through us at the 

(2 0 9 ] 

David W h 

y t e 

thought of dinner and good friends, or a more explosive joy that 
annoys our tired friends as we look forward to meeting a new love. 
Loveless and bereft of happiness, we may feel our neck already 
aching at the thought of one more lonely vigil by the television, a 
fleeting image of ourselves wading helplessly through the advertis- 
ing for something to spark our interest. Loneliness and television 
aside, we may be delighted at the freedom of an evening to our- 
selves, reading, relaxing, and doing whatever we damn well please, 
thank you very much; but no matter what the surface of the later 
hours, late afternoon is the portion of the cycle that reminds us that 
everything in our work fades away and disappears. Work is not the 
be all and end all of human life, no matter our present obsession 
with its glamour and its rewards. After work in the later hours, 
whatever humanity we may have hidden in our work returns again 
for reconciliation. We each have parts of us we must face again and 
again, parts of us that seem inevitable no matter the surface changes 
attempted in the light. When the day is past its zenith, we know we 
must revisit those inevitabilities once more. 

Home Again: The Rituals of Return 

Late afternoon is return. As the evening proceeds, we often 
return to family or our empty home just at the time when our best 
energies may have left us and our final patience expended on the 
traffic that dogs our commute. The late afternoon is the homeward 
road, but the way we enter the home can be crucial. We may have a 
well-loved place or a well-loved family, but we can spoil the wel- 
come very easily by too brusque and insensitive an entry. 

1 2 10 ] 


Living happily alone can make the entrance transition simpler: 
Like the monk returning to the shelter of a narrow cell we find the 
actual spaciousness of a palace. In the late afternoon we find our- 
selves naturally needing time to ourselves. Like the transitions of 
the early morning, there is certain important threshold of privacy 
necessary for the changes occurring at this late turning in the hours. 
Blissfully single, we turn on our favorite music, at precisely the vol- 
ume we please, make tea, lie horizontal on the couch, and look 
round our little private kingdom. The transition can be equally cold 
for someone living by themselves. In periods of unhappiness we 
return to the bleak shadow of loneliness, desperate for someone 
simply to ask us about our day, for the chance to exchange and 
receive sympathy. 

Coming home to our families presents its own possibilities 
and prohibitions. Intimacy with another is as hard as intimacy with 
the hours of the day; we forget the privilege of marriage or cohabi- 
tation, the man we fell for, the woman we wooed, when we walk 
through the door with our own tiredness and are presented imme- 
diately with their own competing tiredness. It is exhuasting to be 
exhausted and then to be presented with someone else’s exhaus- 
tion. We had hoped for respite and sympathy and find ourselves hav- 
ing to call on reserves we do not feel we possess. 

This is a moment of truth for the balance of our life and 
our work: How we navigate and find safe harbor in our return to 
hearth and home speaks volumes about the way work is arranged in 
our imaginations. The challenge can be immediate; their tired- 
ness, we are surprised to find, is a deeper species than our own and, 
they seem to be implying, of a whole order oi magnitude beyond 
our comprehension. The competitive edges can become very sharp, 

1 2 11 ] 

David W h 

v t e 

a couple may find themselves in the kitchen like two competing 
attorneys in a court of law, trying to present evidence in subtle 
ways to show that each of them is far more exhausted than the 
other. Not only that, but to their mutual rage, each feels that the 
other is the main cause of that tiredness and may, in fact, be wholly 
to blame. 

Men and women often take different roads at this point to 
exacerbate some of the desperate dynamics of homecoming, and it 
is important at times to understand those differing roads. 1 realize 
that it can be incredibly tiresome to be the subject of a generaliza- 
tion about what men and women are like and then find that individ- 
ually we do not conform to the general pattern. But if we ignore 
general sex differences entirely, we find enormous territories of 
experience closed to our insights and investigations. Men and 
women, in general, are immensely different from one another; in 
their modes of perception, in the way they forge their identities 
in this difficult world and especially different in their approach to 
conversation and the necessary conversations of work. As James 
Hillman has said so eloquently, women generally like to work face 
to face and men generally like to work shoulder to shoulder. There 
are plenty of exceptions on both sides, but we would be missing 
important and readily evident dynamics in the workplace if we pre- 
tended that both sexes approach work, conversation, or even 
silence in the same manner. Advances in the scientific understanding 
of physical sex differences with regard to hormones, brain struc- 
ture, and brain chemistry increasingly point to more significant dif- 
ferences in the way men and women are made, rather than less. An 
intelligent, imaginative approach must take these differences into 

[ 212 ] 


account without holding any one individual man or woman to a 
stereotype that imprisons or rejects them. 

Under the stress of work, men generally look for peace, quiet, 
or even complete silence to recover. They would often prefer to sit 
companionably with their partner, reading or doing something 
shoulder to shoulder without necessarily having to talk about any- 
thing that takes any more emotional energy. A man tends to feel the 
closeness of the woman’s presence as a solace in itself, out of that 
silence he may often ripen into conversation, (though at a pace that 
may drive a woman to distraction). A woman tends to want to dif- 
fuse the tensions and difficulties of the day by moving straight into a 
face-to-face talk, getting to the heart of the matter. For her this is 
more often an act of relaxation, while for the man it can take enor- 
mous psychological and emotional effort. Home from work he 
more often wants silent companionability. The goal may be shared 
on both sides but the way of getting there may be totally different . 
Once the heart of the matter is addressed then silent physical prox- 
imity may be just as nourishing to her. But getting to the heart of the 
matter may be the last thing in the world a man wants. For a start, 
he knows intuitively he is partly to blame for whatever the heart 
of the matter might be and that as soon as he has identified this 
emotional heartland, the urgencies of the masculine psyche will 
make him want him to do something about it or at least promise 
something, exactly when he is desperate to release himself from all 
the promises he has made in his workday. A woman may feel no 
compunction to action herself, the conversation being a liberating 
action in itself. Returning from work, the threshold encounter 
with another person, masculine or feminine, different or not, is a 

12 13 ] 

David Whyte 

moment of vulnerability which demands enormous generosity on 
both sides. 

Vulnerability and Transition 

Late in our day, the first shadows of return we encounter on 
the threshold of our own door are times of immense vulnerability 
and transition. We should remember to take time for ourselves and 
for those who share our lives. To plan a little ahead by asking what 
others would like when they walk through that door, adults or chil- 
dren. There is no sure way of satisfying everyone but if the general 
needs are known, there will be at least a grand opportunity to 
develop a family sense of humor about what everyone is getting or 
not getting when they first come home. Even the acknowledgment 
that Dad is not getting his intimate moments alone with a chainsaw 
can create a laugh and a sense that a certain individuality is being 

Family business can be as busy as any professional business, 
but it can also be a refreshing change to learn to thrive in the chaos 
of a full home. There are the plates, the dishes, the strange aromas, 
errant loved ones dashing from door to door, pets, crayons, crates 
of upturned unidentifiable stuffed animals and sudden teenage visi- 
tors who act as if we do not exist. Much depends on our ability to 
make the transition wholeheartedly from all our many attempts at 
control in the workplace to the happy tolerance of a family chaos 
that can be very good for us. The moment we enter the door from 
work is a primary test of the way we are attempting to make our 
identity through all of our hard, concentrated application. Home is 

I 2 14 ] 


where we must stop trying to control everything and enter into 
the conversations that humanize and ground us into the particular 
territory we have made our own. Home is where we stop trying 
to make gourmet confections refined to the precise palates of 
demanding customers and settle for a good hearty peasant stew 
thrown together from whatever is good and available: a broth that 
has stood and will stand the test of time, a bubbling pot aujeu full of 
taste, and a dish that can be eaten happily by the most discriminating 
and sophisticated chef. 

The tragedy of our overcommitment to work is often marked 
and made clear to us in these hours of return in the late afternoon. 
Obsessive commitment to our work, whatever fictions we tell our- 
selves in the office, sacrifices the timelessness of our children, the 
romance of our marriage, and the necessary ability to enter the 
sweet territory of our own solitude. The glorious and unruly 
momentum of our ungovernable family can grind to a halt when 
obstructed by our continuous anger or misery at their interference 
with our never-ending labors. To a man or woman under sustained 
stress, home can become a brief downtime of no time at all, a place 
they secretly resent before they free themselves and throw them- 
selves back into the office, a place they continually fray at the edges 
to keep the fabric of their work whole and inviolable. 

If we find ourselves angry or exhausted every evening in the 
kitchen, or intolerant of our spouse or our children in the living 
room, something is wrong with the way we are doing our work and 
the way that work is ultimately shaping us. What we overhear our- 
selves saying, as we kick off our shoes alone in the apartment or 
when we greet the children as we swing through the door with our 
tools of work folded in our bag, is indicative of our direction in life. 

[ 215 ] 

David Whyte 

The voice and the identity we occupy on the threshold of our home- 
coming tells us whether our human pilgrimage through life is bein^ 
emboldened or completely overwhelmed by our careers. Perhaps 
we should say overwhelmed by our narrow approach to work and 
career, because all the evidence says that the postmodern workplace 
is becoming just as moveable, unpredictable, passionate, human, 
and untideable as the average family home. We would do well to 
study the disciplines and art of family happiness as a template for 
any possible happiness in our future multi-ethnic, eccentric, and 
slightly chaotic organizations — organizations that will be both infi- 
nitely more ungovernable and infinitely more adaptable than we can 
at present imagine. 

The difficulty and discipline of family life lies in the fact that 
we have to join the multilayered conversation on four or five levels 
at once, and in that conversation experience love, physical close- 
ness, satisfaction, frustration, small griefs, and large losses, some- 
times all on the same day and sometimes all at once. The difficulties 
of work, likewise, are becoming more and more humane; in a sense, 
we are beginning to imagine and commit ourselves to organizations 
where people will grow and throw tantrums as in any family, edu- 
cate themselves, take strange paths that lead to disaster or prove us 
all wrong, be the cause of great profit and immeasurable expense, 
and eventually, like all our growing adolescents, move on and leave. 
For many, family life is an enormous orchestra continually rehears- 
ing, stopping, starting, just about to begin, but never quite getting 
to the program, until one day, to everyone’s surprise, the music 
stops completely, the children are gone to college, to the big city, to 
Africa, to who knows where, and the parents are suddenly sat facing 

1 2 16 ] 


one another in a silence that at first seems intolerable, struggling to 
adapt to the loss of that loving chaos. 

Time flits; in the garden the shadowed gnomon of the sundial 
lengthens across the warm stone disk and the obsessive striving of 
the day has a chance to fade, asking us to give thanks for what we 
possess right now. If late afternoon is the time of our reconciliation 
with shadows, it is also the time of reconciliation with the shadows 
of others. There is an importance to these hours that sets our rela- 
tionship with our partner or our children for the coming evening. It 
is important that it is marked more clearly in our minds and our 
imaginations. It is important that we create something timeless for 
our homeward return that gives everyone a chance to find their feet 
in the family world. A ritual tea time; for adults and children; a glass 
of wine for the tired couple; a time for everyone to say how every- 
thing went, or didn’t. A time of truce, armistice, for the self and for 
others, a moment for compassionate humor, taking a breath, asking 
if it might be possible for so and so to happen later on, not now. A 
prelude for the deeper self- appraisal and self-forgiveness demanded 
by the final entry into night. 

Night and Forgiveness 

Night, for many, especially in the tremulous expectancy of 
youth, can offer sudden, glamorous transformation. Night is the 
time of masks, of leaving behind our daylight identities through 
spectacle, celebration, and intoxication. The big movie, the big 
party, the big game. It is dressing up, going out, putting on the Ritz 

[2 1 7 ] 

David Whyte 

of rich scents and glamours that provide us entry to worlds beyond 
the province of any professional work environment. The restaurant, 
the opera, the orchestra, the club, the clothes, the atmosphere. The 
boulevards of Madrid crowded with thousands until the small 
hours; the strip on the edge of the Middle American town, loud 
with engine revs, catcalls, and shouts from cruising youngsters. The 
glowing television screen masking and substituting for real life. 
Night is the time for taboo; the stretching of boundaries and edges; 
the illicit liaison; the hidden glimpsed, disappearing, then glimpsed 
again. The group of lawyers on Bourbon Street in the seemingly sin- 
free zone of a New Orleans night, out from the carpeted confer- 
ence hall, throwing beads at women who good-naturedly offer to 
show their breasts. In the night we cross boundaries that our profes- 
sional personalities find hard to fathom. 

Night is a time of multiplicity, masks, and ephemera. The lights 
of the city, the hard-to-get invitation, the best table in the restau- 
rant, the best clothes at the ball, all gone by morning, all wanted 
again the following night. I remember Carnival in the streets of 
Venice, people on stilts, fire breathers, masked eighteenth-century 
figures emerging from lit doorways, each person a glamorous mys- 
tery walking toward another mystery. I remember a street bounded 
on one side by a canal, and fifty-two people passing me dressed as a 
pack of cards: spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds, jacks, kings, queens. 
The night as a gamble, a bet, a throw of fortune. People in doorways 
in gorgeous sequins, standing at the thresholds of interior light, half 
in, half out. The night as a passage of erotic possibility. 

Night lights are bright lights: the strip in Las Vegas, the Eiffel 
tower, the luminarios of Santa Fe. Night light is human light claimed 
back from the darkness of nature. We love our ability to step from 

[ 218 ] 


the dark into light of our own human making. Out from the wind, 
the cold, the loneliness. Through the window of a crowded pub in 
County Clare, you can look from the outer blackness of a cold, Irish 
night and see the lit, laughing, talking faces all pressed together; the 
unconscious rhythm of their bodies moving to the fiddle, the flute, 
and the voice of the singer above the hubbub. To look in from the 
cold and the rain is to witness a totally different human identity 
than the one we inhabit standing outside, alone, on the wet road. 
Mostly, we go happily into the heaving room, happy and embold- 
ened, looking forward to the music, the warmth, the conversation, 
and the Guinness. Sometimes there is something else we need; we 
stand outside and turn home for the quiet, for some form of 
encounter other than the involuntary one of the smoke and the 
crowd. Whatever the celebrations of the night, they must be lived 
again in the sober return of our aloneness; many times we are glad 
for that aloneness, but we really have no choice. It waits for us in the 
moments before sleep, unless we allow the oblivion of alcohol or 
television to accompany us right to the pillow. At the end of it all we 
are returned to the visitation of sleep and disappearance. 

Intoxication is foundational for most human beings, a literal or 
metaphorical losing of ourselves, a forgetting of the self we attempt 
to hold together through the controlled hours of work. The Southern 
preacher becomes drunk in his denunciation of all forms of intoxica- 
tion, leading the crowd into an equally intoxicated call and answer. 
Religion itself is based on the self-forgetfulness of passion, spirit, and 
the intoxication of the Holy Spirit. In the very middle of winter, 
Christmas is a lit interior made for the Christian imagination, a shel- 
ter from the cold, from work, a time for the visitation of spirits, reli- 
gious or alcoholic; a time when most alcoholics are severely tested by 

l 2 1 9 \ 



the gravity field of intoxication surrounding them. Human beings 
have craved the self-forgetfulness of passionate encounter since the 
beginning of recorded time. The night awaits us also with its own 
form of encounter; celebration is for the first part of the night, but 
the lonely depth of the night merely bides its time, knowing we must 
come to it. 

To forgo one form of intoxication is to hunt for another. No 
passion is cured without an equal one taking its place. The reformed 
alcoholic must find the drama of her pilgrimage back to sobriety as 
compelling as her initial descent into drink. She does it by telling 
her story again and again in the circle of listeners; her articulation 
finally finding a fervor that will fill her needs for self-forgetfulness. 

Night still waits for us at the end of all the drama, the fervor 
and the celebration. The drinking must stop, the flirtation end in 
commitment or aloneness. The glamour and glitter of the evening 
grays by morning into another, less flattering picture. In all of our 
great contemplative traditions, the time before sleep is seen as a 
rehearsal for our final entry toward the ultimate transformation of 
death. The Christian monk examines his faults in the night office of 
Compline and sets himself the possibility of not repeating them the 
following day. The Zen monk taps the hanging board with a wooden 
mallet, while the other monks sit in meditation, chanting, Life is a 
very serious matter, all things slip quickly away . . . The period immedi- 
ately before sleep is intuited as crucial even by those far from the 
monastery; many of us ask our children to say their prayers before 
sleep, though we may have long given up saying our own. Wise mar- 
ried couples try not to fall asleep while still angry with one another, 
as if intuiting the way sleep sets patterns in place, sets unspoken 
frustration right into our very bones. 

[2 2 0 ] 


Night and sleep is the time of summation and integration, 
when we work unconsciously to thread together a bedrock identity 
independent of work or rational thought. If we look closely at the 
patterns of waking, we know that we wake in almost exactly the 
way we fell asleep. Read into the wee hours until our eyes hurt, and 
we wake with the same tired eyes. Fall asleep worrying and we rise 
with the same residual tension following us into the bathroom. 
Transgress the taboos of our own conscience in the seductive glam- 
our of the early night, and wake with that conscience howling a 
hundred times louder in the light of day. The pilgrimage through the 
night sets its direction and possibility of arrival by the way we take 
our first steps into sleep. The consciousness with which we commit 
ourselves to sleep is crucial to a good waking. 

The hours of the day follow one on the other; we follow them 
round, cycle after cycle after cycle and then one day we come to 
our last hour. This last hour, if we are conscious and free from over- 
whelming pain, should be a time of self perspective, self-forgiveness, 
and, just as in the hour of sleep, self-dissolution. The deathbed is 
traditionally the place of confession, no matter how heinous the 
crime, no matter how others will judge us. We don’t have the will 
to dissemble anymore. The pilgrimage is in its final stage. As the 
sense ol individual self dissolves and becomes an absurd job of work 
that is taking far too much effort to sustain, we give up the need for 
cover and hiding. If we are prayerful in the transition, we might be 
able to find the perspective of the poet David Ignatow. 

I wish I understood the beauty 
in leaves Jailing. 

To whom 

[221 | 



are we beautiful 

as we go? 

What will our final perspective be on all these hours? The 
hours of work, the hours of wealth, the idle hours, the hours of fail- 
ure and self-doubt? Who stands up and divests themselves of this 
body of work? Who lets go of all these accomplishments, these so- 
called failures? Do we look back on the wealth acquired from the 
acquisition, the poems published and admired, the house built and 
sold, the land farmed and productive, or do we see the drama of the 
acquisition, the beauty in the act of writing itself, the happiness the 
house can contain, the love of the land and the sky that nourished it? 
No doubt the identity we have established through all that work col- 
ors our perspective enormously. If we have built a personality 
through our life and work that is based on fear and keeping our nose 
clean, those same fears will overwhelm us completely at the 
precipice that awaits us at the end, until we pass over it to some 
other mercy beyond our own making. If we have hazarded ourselves 
courageously, we will be ready for the final hazarding of that depth. 
We will be able to look back at our endeavors with just as much 
courage as we look forward to giving them all up. Something was 
hidden in the work all along; something was hidden in our lives; 
something is hidden from us yet on the other side of death. 

It is the hidden in our work that always holds the treasure. A 
life dedicated to the goodness in work is a life making visible all the 
rich invisible seams of existence hidden from others. Good work is 
grateful surprise. The value hidden in the investment, the legal case 
buried in the casebooks, the spare room converted and completed 
from the rubble of its first destruction. We must connect all this 

[2 2 2 ] 


invisibility to as large a perspective as we can afford ourselves, eco- 
logically and politically and spiritually. Whatever the hour of the 
day, in our work we must do the right thing, in the right way, for the 
right end. The multilevel discipline involved in good work is the 
road to happiness and the pilgrimage to self-respect. Once the job is 
done, we circle it, admire it — even if no one else can or will — clean 
up, and move on. Leaving the work to find its own place in the 
world is the mark of a good workman, a good workwoman. The 
house to be lived in generation after generation, the violin passed 
down, private wealth becoming inherited commonwealth. We cul- 
tivate the disciplines of care and attention in small, pivotal ways that 
have large, far-reaching effects on ourselves and others. Out of 
what is hidden we make the visible and then call it work; work that 
makes sense of the hours we are privileged to live. 

I 2 2 3 ] 

X / 

Keats and Conversation: 

The New and Newly Youthful World of Work 

I have traveled to Rome a number of times in the last years. Every 
time 1 am on my way by air, sitting by the window and staring out 
over the very southern tip of Greenland, I clench my fist slightly, 
inspired by the grandeur below, and promise myself a visit to that 
other human-made grandeur, the Sistine Chapel. But despite my 
resolve I have never yet made it all the way to the Vatican. There is 
another, smaller chapel which entraps me on my way and holds me 
for the one short sightseeing afternoon I usually have to spare. The 
chapel that ensnares me is not really a chapel; it is only a small 
room, but it has the sanctity of a holy place in my imagination. It is 
the quiet, sheltered place where the young poet Keats died, at the 
age of twenty-five, in 1821. 

It was quiet inside the room, so quiet you could imagine 
Keats’s last breath, hesitating for a moment, before it finally carried 
him out of this world. He was young but he had already written 
himself into the mainstream of English literature. He has become 
to many, the timeless image of youth and the equally timeless 

[ 2 2 7 ] 

David Whyte 

representation of youthful vision, a vision that continually renews 
the world by looking at it with fresh eyes. 

Here lies one whose name was writ in water, was the epitaph he 
wrote for himself. Yet despite being writ in the water of memory, 
his is a name that has flowed from generation to generation more 
alive and more distinctive every year since his death. It seems fitting 
then, that right outside that window, as if in another sphere of expe- 
rience, you can hear a wild, happy crowd of young people gathered 
from all over the globe. They gather there not because of Keats’s 
spirit but because they are drawn like he was, when he was almost 
as young as they, to a gathering place at the threshold between the 
new and the old. 

Right beneath Keats’s window, like a wide stone river, runs a 
long, branching cascade of steps. A perfect theatrical amphitheater 
for those below. The steps are perfect for sitting on, for observing, 
for seeing everything and everybody all at once, and if you look 
from the church of Trinta dei Monti at the very top of these steps, 
you can see the whole silhouette of the Eternal City against the 
evening sky. These steps, the Spanish Steps, as they are called, feel 
like the center of Rome, though they are actually on the very edge 
of the old city, but they also feel, seeing the sea of young faces surg- 
ing over them at almost all seasons of the year, like the center of a 
new and forming world. 

Looking down from the window you can see the young people 
of many different continents swaying and moving like a tide, talking 
laughing, watching, listening. There is nothing stable in the world; 
uproar’s jour only music. Keats could have been writing for our 
time, and if you were trying to see only what is ancient in the city, 
then these young people would be a distraction, but perhaps if you 

[2 2 8 ] 


looked out of that window blessed with the same attentive eyes for 
movement as Keats possessed, you might see in them the unac- 
knowledged legislators of our new world. 

It is a sight peculiar to our epoch. There are young Italians, 
Americans, Germans and English, Irish and Japanese, Australian, 
and Malaysian and African and South American men and women all 
gathered in one place, sharing a distinctive worldwide music and 
youth culture. They are the first generation of a newly melded 
world that has been formed from the ashes of the old and extremely 
divided world, a divided world known to their parents and grand- 
parents and to Keats himself. Many of their parents also traveled to 
Rome in their time, but their world had not yet melded and joined 
as it has for these young people. Many of their grandparents, it is 
astonishing to think, were trying to kill one another on the battle- 
fields of Europe or the ravaged atolls of the South Pacific. 

But this crowd has little interest in all that now. They sip from 
the same companionable electronic streams. Their clothes come 
from the ghetto streets of America or the fashionable streets of 
Europe, and more often than not, both at the same time. The music 
of their generation passes from ear to ear and antenna to antenna 
around the globe like a spreading electric pulse. They see and hear 
similar visions; they are bound together now by forces stronger 
than those that once attempted to force them apart. Astonishingly, 
for all their contemporary sophistication, they have lodged in their 
collective imaginations, like many of their ancestors, the experi- 
ence of a parallel other world. But they do not look across the Tiber 
to the dome of the Vatican, or its sister religious temples around the 
globe, for news of this other world, no matter the beauties that the 
old world offers; they look to the frontiers of exploration they share 

12 2 9 ] 

David Whyte 

through the shop windows of the world’s fashion houses, the click 
of an MP3 recorder, or the decisive movement of an electronic 

The young are wiser than we think. Keats spoke for them at 
this age. 0 for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! But talk to 
them at any length, and many of them know, at least in a hazy way, 
that they are missing the depths and subtlety of the old theological 
order. Armani is not Michelangelo, and their two-dimensional com- 
puter screens cannot sustain their spiritual and imaginative hopes. 
But they also know that people such as Michelangelo were peculiar 
geniuses who were among the first individuals to rise above the 
forces of their time. Most did not. The general inheritance of their 
history is one of oppression and hierarchy. The spiritual inheritance 
was rich and deep but in those old theological and societal depths 
were drowned generations of individual initiative and freedom. 
Those previous generations had no choice but to join the hierar- 
chies available to them; they had no choice but to join the structures 
available to them — join or starve, or worse. More often than not in 
the past, standing up to powers temporal, societal or spiritual, 
meant death or exile. 

Even for our parents, and our parents’ parents, the images of 
individual identity that formed and made them, were drawn from 
the atmosphere of the Second World War and the organizational 
power of military might. In North America, Northern Europe, Rus- 
sia, and Japan, hardly a single adult of the war generation was 
untouched by the forming hand of the military, or the necessities of 
military production. Our corporate identities of the fifties and six- 
ties were made in the image of those military organizations which 
had fought the good fight, and in the west, finally prevailed. Our 

l 2 3 0 ] 


organizations and our approach to work has necessarily been a 
product of military mobilization. But the forces that are now shap- 
ing our future are being mobilized by the individual imagination. 
Perhaps, more accurately, our future will come from the individual 
imagination in conversation with all other individual imaginations. 
A mobilization of something that exists at the edges between things. 
A sea formed not from a general’s command but from the flow and 
turn of a thousand creative conversational elements. 

Not that these young people have any special enmity toward 
the church — they dislike any organization which tries to remain a 
mother or a father to them beyond the span of their natural child- 
hood, whether that controlling hand is seen in the guise of a church, 
a corporation or a nation state. The wish for freedom among these 
young people, for a life of their own, is beginning to change whole 
cultures. The young Japanese woman refuses any longer to be 
happy carrying coffee for her male colleagues. The Irish youth no 
longer has to live under a clouded sense of sin, emigration, and self- 
victimization; he looks to the celebration of a cultural intelligence 
that is now an international icon. The German lad does not expect 
to be kept in the manner to which his retiring parents have become 
accustomed. The young Italian woman refuses to be enmeshed in 
the imprisoning family drama of centuries and will not bear chil- 
dren. They all demand a breathing space in which they can take the 
time to bring their particular gifts into conversation with the life 
they want for themselves. 

Of course we must be careful not to place all of our youth on 
this edge. While our late teens and early twenties are generally a 
time for the exploration of edges and freedom, there are plenty of 
the college age population, particularly in the United States, who 

[ 2 3 1 \ 

David Whyte 

have chosen to forgo any period of youthful wandering, and who 
have put their collective noses to the grindstone of corporate life 
very early indeed. They do not find themselves with time on their 
hands in the cobbled streets of Rome. They specialize early, mort- 
gage early, and join the life of worry and concern almost immedi- 
ately. They are stuck with the rest of us in the great traffic jam of 
modern life. They still look at prospective companies only for a 
combination of rewards and security. They have already, in a way, 
joined the older generation and have unconsciously disenfranchised 
themselves from any immediate reimagining of our collective 
future. Keats would despair at the loss, not only to themselves but 
to those of a slightly older generation who often, against their wills, 
need the noisy natural courage of youth to stir them from their 
learned complacencies. 

The age of old complacencies, old certainties and old loyalties 
is over, and these young ones beneath the window represent an 
increasingly larger population that know it. They have what Keats 
described as Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable ofbeing in 
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts 
and reason . . . 

Our young people have negative capability because uncer- 
tainty and doubt is the nature of our time. Facts and reason are but a 
choice in a number of ways of looking at the world. Science is seen 
to have its own inbuilt bias and its own myopia, hemmed in as it is 
by the grant-awarding portion of a universe that it intends to under- 
stand. But those growing into young adulthood now do not see 
doubt as a bad thing. Not to know is the natural order of our times. 
To most of them, uncertainty, multiplicity, mystery and unknowing 
are understood as a vital way of paying attention to a new epoch 

[ 2 3 21 


forming quickly around them. They see uncertainty as a kind of 
breathing space from the ironbound nature of the past. To leave 
things unnamed is to allow them to form their own names accord- 
ing to the lens through which they are viewed. 

We live at a remarkable threshold: for the first time in the his- 
tory of the West, we have two generations in the developed world 
who have had a real breathing space from the last vestiges of feudal- 
ism, from the last memories of war, and from the necessities of war. 
Who have also, for the first time in history, a breathing space from 
their parental religious institutions. The church in Italy and Ireland 
can no longer reach its hand into the lives of young people and 
dominate them in the same way it was able to just thirty years ago. 
There is everywhere a wish for more of a conversation of equals. In 
Iran, the iron hand of the cleric is slowly being pried open by a gen- 
eration now hungry for a life of their own. There is no doubt that 
much has been lost with regard to overt spiritual direction, but 
would any of them go back? For direction and domination? Not a 
chance. For a conversation of equals? Yes, perhaps. 

Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an indi- 
vidual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it 
falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging. In free- 
dom is the wish to belong to structure in our own particular way. 
Our present obsession with the surfaces of life is at least the explo- 
ration of the extreme free end of the spectrum between freedom 
and belonging, even if it is sometimes a marvelous excuse to forgo 
the possible opposing depths of belonging. 

Surfaces are part of the spirit of our time, no matter how shal- 
low those surfaces may be. It is the prospect of freedom that we see 
in cars, in clothes and in music, of suddenly being alive in the world 

1 2 3 3 ] 

David Whyte 

in a different way, that leads us to spend collective fortunes on them 
every year. We are strange, difficult creatures who long for both 
freedom and belonging at the same time, and often run a mile when 
the real thing appears. That is the frontier on which we dwell. 

But perhaps, in the greater perspective of things, the instincts 
of our present surface loving world are correct. In a normal matur- 
ing human being, freedom allows us to make surface choices that 
almost always deepen into belonging: to partnership, marriage, 
children, or commitment to a life’s work. It is as if on a grand scale 
across many countries and cultures, we are suddenly being left 
alone to explore as many surfaces as we wish and the prospect 
is both amazing and daunting. We do not know yet where to dig 
for treasure, but perhaps that will come in time. We have been 
orphaned from the depth of our old spiritual and organizational 
structures and we are refusing to go underground again until we 
find something freer in those depths, or until we find a newer, more 
spacious inheritance in which to live and breathe above ground. 

Keats might have agreed with these young people’s aversion to 
the packaged revelations of a previous age, no matter how real the 
original dispensation. 

Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they have proved 

upon our pulses; we read fine things but never feel them to the 
full until we have gone the same steps as the author. 

Keats could have been describing the hunger of our time; not 
the hunger for an explained meaning, but the hunger for actual 
experience. We want things proved upon our pulses. If whatever we 
are doing, in work or whatever we are connected to, does not prove 

1 2 3 4 ) 


to have a pulse or elicit a corresponding pulse in our own bodies, no 
matter how venerable its history, then it no longer seems real to us. 
History is fading from our consciousness, and we are busy forming 
it in our own image in the hope of making it real again. History has 
its pulse, and so does our own time. The heartbeat of our time has 
everything to do with our individual relationship to freedom and 

The very confusion around what is virtual and what is real, 
what is advertising and what is true information, is creating a 
groundswell of questioning about the realities of human relation- 
ships. Without the old pressures of society and church, relationships 
have now become contingent more upon our instinctual imagi- 
nations. Whatever relationships we have in these times, they have 
to be real and vital to survive. They are contingent on the extent to 
which we live them out fully and wholeheartedly, to the extent to 
which we can instinctively imagine ourselves in them. The marriage 
will only remain our marriage as long as we inhabit it. The work is 
only our work as long it is the right work for us. A home is a home 
only if we can live well in it now, no matter that previous genera- 
tions may have handed it down century after century. We no longer 
seem to have the energy for the upkeep. If we are not alive in our 
present home or our present relationship, it seems to be the nature 
of our time that they shrivel up and die around us. If it is true for the 
individual, it is true for our societies and our organizations. They 
can no longer survive as outer, hollow forms but must breathe with 
the life of those who make them up. 

We break relationships when they are too small for us, when the 
home we have made in them cramps our particular style and holds 
us in a way that begins to deform our character. We are reimagining 

[2 3 5 ] 

David Whyte 

our houses of belonging now, and one of the first to be reimagined is 
the world of work. We are attempting to make work more lifelike, 
more in the image of what we instinctively want for ourselves. 

New Conversations in the Workplace 

Every organization attempting to wake up to this newly 
youthful world is now asking for qualities from its people that are 
touchstones of their humanity. I am certain of nothing but the holiness 
of the heart’s affections. Keats is famous for saying. In the poetic tradi- 
tion, the heart’s affections are indeed holy, and if organizations are 
asking for people’s hearts and minds, they are asking in a way for 
their holy and hidden affections at the same time. It is difficult to be 
creative and enthusiastic about anything for which we do not feel 
affection. If the aims of the company are entirely fiscal, then they 
will engage those whose affections are toward the almighty dollar. If 
they have a range of qualities or a sense of creative engagement to 
be found through their doors, they may get in return something 
more worthwhile from their people. 

It seems to me that this contract of creativity and engagement is 
essential now. Companies need the contributing vitality of all the 
individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of 
changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real 
way of asking people to bring these hidden, heartfelt qualities into the 
workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the 
subject of some five-year plan. They must ask for a real conversation. 

Every organization serious about its place in this new move- 
able world is asking desperately for more adaptability, vitality, 

[2 3 6 ] 


imagination, and the enthusiastic willingness to go the extra mile — 
qualities which are ancient and which human beings have wanted 
for themselves since the beginning of recorded history, but which 
they cannot give at the press of a button. None of these qualities can 
be legislated or coerced, they have their own life and go their own 
way within a person according to the elements of an individual’s 
makeup, and especially according to the way those powers are 
invited from the interior of an individual to the surface. 

There is no lever to pull inside a person that will activate their 
creativity, and no specific slogan that will bring about a passionate 
response. Programs are programs, and creative people are creative 
people, and the two do not meet happily. If there were a specific 
lever for all this inside them, the individuals would have pulled it for 
themselves a long time ago. But it is just as difficult for any individ- 
ual to find their own creative powers as it is for an organization. 
When it comes to the moment of truth, both the organization and 
the individual are equally afraid of the creativity, the passion, and 
the courage that accompany those powers hidden within them and 
that are central to their vitality. This meeting place of creative antic- 
ipation and fearful arrival is the elemental core of a new conversa- 
tion in the workplace. 

Courage, Conversation, Fear, 
and Failure 

What we have to confront in the present workplace is the 
reluctance to engage in conversations that really invite the creative 
qualities hidden deep inside each human being. It is a reluctance 

12 3 7 ) 

David Whyte 

born of the knowledge that by inviting creativity and passion, the 
organization must also make room for fear and failure. There is no 
creativity without a sense of high stakes or a sense of potential loss, 
and almost always, if the risk is real, then some of those potential 
losses become actual ones. It is a high stakes game for the company 
but it is also very high stakes for the individuals playing out their 
life’s destiny within its walls. Fear loss, difficulty, failure; these are 
qualities and themes which make the conversation about creativity 
in the workplace real. To acknowledge the hidden part of human 
beings is to make a home for them and to create a loyalty beyond 
the bottom line, especially in the new territory of creative engage- 
ment into which the organization is now tiptoeing. In trying to 
engage people without these foundational qualities we cultivate a 
conversation which has no heart and no affection. 

Conversation is the heart of human life and conversation is 
also the heart of commerce. If we take a moment to think about it, 
every organization must keep several different conversations vital at 
once. Firstly, a conversation with the unknown future gathering 
around their industry or their products, secondly, a conversation 
with their customers or the people they serve right now; and 
thirdly, the conversation that occurs between those who actually 
work together in the organization. But the depth and usefulness of 
all these outer conversations depend upon an internal conversation 
that is occurring within each individual. It is very difficult to make 
any of those outer, abstract conversations real if the people who 
come in through the door every day have no real conversation with 
their own individuality. 

It is one of the tragedies of many organizations that the people 
placed into positions of power and leadership may have come from 

[2 3 8 1 


a technical background whose previous successes bear little resem- 
blance to the qualities they now need. They need to be human 
beings attempting to engage other human beings in a conversation 
with the future. If our language is technical, then the qualities we 
draw from people will only be of a technical nature. All very well if 
adaptability and creativity are not needed anymore. Terribly narrow 
and terribly dispiriting to those who must work in technology’s 
artificial shadow without an understanding of what it is supposed 
to serve. Technology’s life saving and life changing gifts only make 
sense when cradled by a network of human conversation, a robust 
conversation that forms a parallel human network just as powerful 
as our computer networks, holding any technology to standards of 
sense and meaning, ethics and personal freedom. 

In order to get a real conversation with the world you have to 
drop artificial language, you have to drop politics, and you have to 
drop an environment based on fear and hiding. People must be 
encouraged not only to know their craft, their products, their work 
and the people they serve, but to know a little of themselves. In 
order to respond to the world of wants, they must know something 
of what they want themselves. Just as important they must know 
what they do not want. They must also look at their inherited fears 
around conversation, particularly the conversation about their own 
gifts. This personal conversation can be very frightening but it is an 
increasingly necessary one, especially for those who have any lead- 
ership role in the organization. 

For a real conversation we need a real language. To my mind 
that is the language not enshrined in business books or manuals but 
in our great literary traditions. Keats or Wordsworth, Emily Dick- 
inson or Mary Oliver often say more in one line about the invisible 

[2 3 9 ] 



structures that make up the average workday than a whole shelf of 
contemporary business hooks. 

A New Language, a New World 

The inherited language of the corporate workplace is far too 
small for us now. It has too little poetry, too little humanity, and too 
little good business sense for the world that lies before us. We only 
have to look at the most important word in the lexicon of the 
present workplace — manager — to understand its inherent weak- 
ness. Manager is derived from the old Italian and French words 
maneggio and manege, meaning the training, handling and riding of 
a horse. 

It is strange to think that the whole spirit of management is 
derived from the image of getting on the hack of a beast, digging 
your knees in, and heading it in a certain direction. The word man- 
ager conjures images of domination, command, and ultimate con- 
trol, and the taming of a potentially wild energy. It also implies a 
basic unwillingness on the part of the people to be managed, a force 
to be corralled and reined in. All appropriate things if you wish to 
ride a horse, but most people don’t respond very passionately or 
very creatively to being ridden, and the words giddy up there only 
go so far in creating the kind of responsive participation we now 
look for. 

Sometime over the next fifty years or so, the word manager 
will disappear from our understanding of leadership, and thankfully 
so. Another word will emerge, more alive with possibility, more 
helpful, hopefully not decided upon by a committee, which will 

l 2 4 0 \ 


describe the new role of leadership now emerging. An image of 
leadership which embraces the attentive, open-minded, conversa- 
tionally based, people-minded person who has not given up on her 
intellect and can still act and act quickly when needed. Much of the 
wisdom needed to create these new roles, lies not in our empirical, 
strategic disciplines but in our artistic traditions. It is the artist in 
each of us we must now encourage into the world, whether we have 
worked for the Getty Foundation or for Getty Oil. We must bring 
our visionary artistic powers into emancipation with our highly 
trained empirical powers of division and deduction. 

The Artist’s Vision 

There is a good practical reason for encouraging our artistic 
powers within organizations that up to now might have been unwel- 
coming or afraid of those qualities. The artist must paint or sculpt 
or write, not only for the present generation but for those who have 
yet to be born. A good artist, it is often said, is fifty to a hundred 
years ahead of their time, they describe what lies over the horizon in 
our future world. We still have not reached the generation for 
which Shakespeare ultimately wrote. The artist, of whatever epoch, 
must also depict this new world before all of the evidence is in. 
They must rely on the embracing abilities of their imagination to 
intuit and describe what is yet a germinating seed in their present 
time, something that will only flower after they have written the 
line or painted the canvas. The present manager must learn the 
same artistic discipline, they must learn to respond or conceive of 
something that will move in the same direction in which the world 

[ 241 ] 

David Whyte 

is moving, without waiting for all the evidence to appear on their 
desks. To wait for all the evidence is to finally recognize it through a 
competitor’s product. 

There is another, more important reason. The artist’s sensibil- 
ity is one that grants life to things outside of our normal human ken. 
It understands that our place in this world can never be measured by 
the Dow Jones, that our ultimate arrival on our deathbed entitles us 
to other perspectives than mere fiscal success or the size of our 
retirement account. Free markets are not the be all and end all of 
life; they are the best we can do at the moment and are even now 
being ameliorated by the realization that any freedom is always 
understood within some far greater social, ecological, or religious 
sense of belonging. 

In the United States in particular it is not yet understood that 
for the rest of the world, the conversation has moved on from the 
mere championing of market forces. Europe does not want hormone 
tainted beef, Europe and India do not want genetically modified 
foods, no matter the present antiseptic assurances of international 
scientific panels. European and Indian politicians will not be able to 

allow these products on the store shelves or in their fields their 

peoples will not let them, no matter what they have signed at the 
World Trade Organization. Across the world there is a movement 
that is now beginning to push back and respond to the hegemony of 
international corporate business needs. The successful companies 
will be ones that do not merely lather lobbyists and politicians with 
buckets of money in order to keep this new world at bay, but the 
ones who are in conversation with this emerging alternative vision. 
Companies must join this conversation not only because it is the 
right thing to do as participants in a more and more democratic 

[2 4 2 ] 


world, but also because it is a way, as Keats would have said, of prov- 
ing the world on their pulses. The same imaginations that are pushing 
for a different world are the ones deciding what they want to wear 
and eat and watch and hear. 

The young people gathered on the steps of Rome are gathered 
also on the steps of a new world. They are interested in a more 
imaginative participation than their parents can ever provide for 
them; they demand a different kind of conversation; they will make 
this world themselves no matter what we have to say. They have in 
their bones an understanding and a wish for more freedom — a free- 
dom in their societies but also especially in their work. They have 
equality and freedom in their bones, but also a knowledge of the 
way individual freedoms impinge upon other people and other 
creatures. They have worries especially about the integrity of the 
biosphere. They are the first generation to look upon the sky not 
only as a sheltering roof, an insulation against the outer darkness, 
but also as a threat to their well-being. The hole in the ozone layer as 
yet sweeps like a searchlight each winter only over the southern 
ocean, but they know it is only a matter of time before its glare 
begins to widen. They know that the air they breathe has been 
changed and altered by the virtuous work of millions of others. 
Virtue and work for them, do not necessarily go together so easily 
any more. Our individual successes, they intuit, are collectively 
tearing at the fabric of the planet. 

Keats believed toward the end that his fatal tuberculosis came 
from his unsatisfied love for the young woman he had wanted but 
left in London, Fanny Brawne. He felt as if his natural affections 
turned in upon himself were destroying him and bringing him to 
the edge of oblivion. We shake our heads, and yet we understand 

[243 1 

David W h 

y t e 

the allegory, and Keats did say, A man’s life of any worth is a continual 
allegory . . . Our loves and affections cannot be held in some limbo 
inside us where they can do no harm. They are too powerful to be 
held in place. They want to take what they love in their arms. They 
have set off on a voyage from far inside us to find their home in the 
clear light of day, and in the intensity of that search they see oppor- 
tunities and arrivals in our outer lives where we see only difficul- 
ties. Our affections and loves will not be denied but must find a 
home by being expressed in the world. Work is the ground of their 
arrival, and ours too. To die inside, is to rob our outside life of anv 
sense of arrival from that interior. Our work is to make ourselves 
visible in the world. This is the soul s individual journey, and the soul 
would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s. 

Where we find obstacles in the physical world, the soul finds a 
shoreline which is a frontier of arrival between the visible and the 
invisible. The soul of an individual is the longing inside each person 
for a greater sense of belonging, for a new country. We go through 
most workdays forgetting that this grand migratory force exists 
within us. We may feel a small satisfaction in a step taken, while the 
soul feels as if it is anchored off the promised land, with just a short 
row to bring it home. At the level of our souls, no matter the diffi- 
culty in our work, or the responsibilities, or the possibility of fail- 
ure, entire new worlds are coming into being. 

At the very end, as Keats died, his fears and regrets fell away, 
and the visible and the invisible became one shoreline. That far 
shore at the other side of life we know as death appeared and 
offered him a new home. As he approached this shore, his calmness 
and his generous nature returned. You could say that his youth 
returned. The vulnerable, attentive, and compassionate spirit that 

[2 4 4 ] 


had written his poetry was all that was left, his true legacy. His last 
words were words for his friend that he should not be afraid of 
where he was going: “I shall die easy — don’t be frightened — befrm — 
and thank God it has come.” 

Outside the window, the crowd is vibrant with evening and 
the glamour of the Roman night. The city comes to life in a new way 
after the business of the day. The young cross this threshold from 
light to dark as they must cross from youth to maturity, but for now 
their young eyes and ears and limbs go on watching and listening 
and moving happily to the invisible rhythm of their mutual anticipa- 
tion. Each of their lives stretches out before them like a great jour- 
ney. Each of them will look back from the end of that journey and 
feel their time here was as brief and fleeting as Keats felt looking 
back on his short twenty-five years. Keats was as old or as young 
when he died as any of us will ever be, because he had chanced his 
work in the world and won through, even as he lost his life. / think I 
shall be among the English Poets after my death, he had written three 
years before. None of our lives, at the end, will seem any longer 
than Keats’s life seemed to him. At the end of every life, no matter 
how long or how short we compress into its span the question of 
our ultimate contribution. At the threshold of loss, we look back to 
gain a glimpse of the nature of anything we have ever held in our 

In work as in life, we must contemplate the loss of everything 
in order to know what we have to give; it is the essence of writing, 
the essence of working, the essence of living; an essence that we 
look for by hazarding our best gifts in the world, and in that per- 
spective, all of us are young and have the possibilities of the young 
until our last breath goes out. 

1 2 4 5 ] 

B ibliography 

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. Sinclair- Stevenson, 1995. 

Barker, Juliet. The Brontes. Phoenix Giant, 1995. 

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. Routledge, 

Blake, William. William Blake (The Oxford Authors), ed. Michael Mason. Oxford Univer- 
sity Press, 1988. 

Coote, Stephen. Keats: A Life. Hodder and Stoughton, 1995. 

Defoe, Daniel. A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain. 1724—1726. Penguin, 1976. 
DICKINSON, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, R. W. Franklin ed. , Belknap Press. Harvard 
University, 1951, 1955, 1979. 

DONOHUE, John. Eternal Echoes.: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong. Harper Collins, 1999. 
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1874 ed. Penguin Books, 1972. 

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909—1962. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963. 

Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford Lives). Oxford University Press, 1989. 
GREEN, Barbara. The Outlaw Robin Hood: His Yorkshire Legend. Kirklees Metropolitan Coun- 
cil Cultural Services, 1991 . 

Handy, Charles. The Hungry Spirit. Hutchinson, 1997. 

HAWKEN, PAUL, AmORY Lovins, AND L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism. Little, Brown 
and Co., 1999. 

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Thames and Hudson, 1982. 

HOUGH, Richard. Captain James Cook: A Biography. W. W. Norton, 1994. 

KAVANAGH, Patrick. The Complete Poems. The Goldsmith Press, 1972. 

PAGLIA, CAMILLE. Sexual Personae. Vintage Books, 1991 . 

RlLKE, Rainer Maria. Selected Poems, trans. Robert Bly. Harper & Row, 1981 . 

Sobel, Dava. Longitude. Walker, 1995. 

Steindl-Rast, David, with Sharon Lebell. Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the 
Hours of the Day. Seastone, 1998. 

TARRANT, JOHN. The Light Inside the Dark. Harper Collins, 1998. 

WHYTE, David. Fire in the Earth. Many Rivers Press, 1990. 

. The House of Belonging. Many Rivers Press, 1997. 

WORDSWORTH, WILLIAM. William Wordsworth (The Oxford Authors), ed Stephen Gill, ed. 
Oxford University Press, 1988. 



“The Truly Great” from Selected Poems by Stephen Spender. Copyright © 1 964 by Stephen 
Spender. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. 

Excerpts from The Prelude and “Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth. 
Reprinted by kind permission of The Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, UK. 

“The Swan” and “My Life Is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour” from Selected Poems of Rainer 
Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Robert Bly. Copyright © 1981 by Robert Bly. 
Reprinted with permission from Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 

“The Opening of Eyes” from Songs for Coming Home by David Whyte. Copyright © 1 999 by 
David Whyte. Reprinted by permission of Many Rivers Press, Langley, WA. 

“You Darkness” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by David Whyte from Fire in the Earth by 
David Whyte. Copyright © 1997 by David Whyte. Reprinted by permission of Many 
Rivers Press, Langley, WA. 

“The Self- Slaved” from The Complete Poems, Goldsmith Press Ed., by Patrick Kavanagh. 
Copyright © 1972 by Devin-Adair, Publishers, Inc., Old Greenwich, Connecticut, 
06870. Reprinted by permission of Devin-Adair, Publishers. All rights reserved. 

“Everything is Going to be All Right” from Derek Mahon Collected Poems 1962-1978 by 
Derek Mahon. Copyright © 1999. Reprinted by kind permission of the author and The 
Gallery Press, Loughcrew, Oldcastle, Co. Meath, Ireland. 

“Working Together,” “Loaves and Fishes,” “What to Remember Upon Waking” from The 
House of Belonging by David Whyte. Copyright © 1998 by David Whyte. Reprinted by per- 
mission of Many Rivers Press, Langley, WA. 

“Not Known, Because Not Looked For” Excerpt from “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets. 
Copyright © 1942 byT. S. Eliot and renewed in 1970 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Reprinted by 
permission of Harcourt, Inc. 

Poem 657 “I Dwell in Possibility,” and Poem 1 760 “Elysium is as far as to” from The Poems of 
Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the 
Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., 
Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1951, 
1955, 1979 by the president and Fellows of Harvard College. 


ability, 13, 16, 120, 147, 180; amazing, 153; 
indomitable, 4; maritime, 60; risk-taking, 
154; stepping from dark into light, 218-19 
absence, 10, 108, 176, 177, 1 8 3 ; necessary, 204 
adolescents, 36, 216 
advertising, 186, 235 
affections, 236, 243, 244 
afternoon, 203, 204, 205, 206; late, 210; 

shadows, 209 
alcoholics, 219—20 
aliveness, 36,73—6, 179—81, 189 
Allen, Steve, 1 19—21 
Allen, Woody, 7 

aloneness, 82, 119, 146, 198, 220; sober return 
of, 219 

ambition, 54, 79, 80, 1 56; amorous, 72; and 
ancestral imagining, 108— 10; secret, 123; 
understanding of, 85 
American Civil War, 44, 45 
amnesia, 1 18; collective; self-inflicted, 1 17 
ancestry /ancestors, 92, 1 1 3; ambition and, 
108—10; hopes of, 93—4 
angels, 5, 179-80 

anticipation, 1 13, 149, 174; creative, 237; 

mutual, 245; restful, 1 88 
appearance, 55, 73, 176, 183 
apprenticeship, 39,42, 142, 155, 180; waking, 

approaches to work, 3 , 231; both sexes, 212; 
narrow, 2 1 6 

arrivals, 67—8, 77, 79, 87, 1 34, 1 54; and 
authenticity, 1 39—50; deathbed, 242; 
exhilaration for, 59; fearful, 237; frontier of, 
244; hearing and, 149; new territory, 155; 
tension of, 199 

attention, 74, 75, 76, 94, 1 88; constant, 80; 
cultivating, 223; depth of, 115, 119; longing 
to be center of, 1 40 
audiences, 1 39-50 
authenticity, 1 39—50, 1 60 
authority, 1 08, 208; figures of, 181; see also 
CEOs; management; parents; teachers 
awkwardness, 128—35, 148, 149 

beginnings, 1 1 3, 1 14, 1 36, 144; prelude to, 

143; real, 82 

belonging, 23, 36, 235; ancient lineaments of, 
92; childhood, 69, 160; creatures of, 65; 
expression of, 14; fierce ecologies of, 107; 

inner template of, 68—71 ; lack of sense of, 
80; re-imagining our houses of, 235—6; sense 
of, 5,25,93, 138,233,242 
birth, 69, 113, 114, 115, 194 
Blake, William, 3—8 passim, 10, 194-5 
blame, 40-2 passim, 44, 45, 212, 21 3 
Bly, Robert, 131, 175 

bodies, 7, 56, 57, 71 , 80, 100; anticipatory, 64; 
childhood, 158; dying for something to do, 
208; energy and, 168, 1 94; exhausted, 145; 
falling apart, 143; growing, 65; lost, 72, 183; 
working, 76 
Boeing, 69, 203 

bosses, 45, 1 56; difficult, 157; good, 48 
“bottom line,” 14 
Brawne, Fanny, 243 
“bright lights,” 87 

Britain, 49—50, 52; aristocracy, 193 

Bronte, Emily, 37—8 

Bronzewing (sloop), 32, 40, 42, 43 

bullying, 53,91, 158, 172 

Bush, George (Sr.), 50 

business, 73, 117-19, 1 55, 245; family, 214; 

rule of law taken into hands of, 1 64 
business books, 239, 240 
“busyness,” 73, 117, 1 19, 122-3, 1 28; constant, 
176; night terror of, 127 

California, 53, 1 39, 145 

calmness, 8 1 , 209, 244 

Calypso (ship), 64 

Campbell, Joseph, 156-7 

captaincy/ captains, 42—4, 45, 46—8, 54, 

57—60; assuming, 56; conversation of, 61 ; 
strong, 52 

careers, 6, 10, 52, 108; bland compliance to, 

93; change of, 39; corporate safety, 92; 
narrow approach to, 216; poetic, suicidal 
glory, 147 

Carlos (crewman), 41 , 42 

Catholics, 108-9, 132 

Cavafy, Constantine P. , 76 

celebration, 143, 174, 219, 231 

CEOs (chief executive officers), 36; bullying, 


challenge, 4, 73, 130, 134 
change, 25,91; career, 39; difficult, 171; 
ecological and technological, 59; waking in 
response to, 58 


chaos, 39, 149, 214, 216; loving, 217 
childhood, 65,68,70-1,85, 109, 162; 

belonging, 69, 160; beyond, 231 ; enthusiasm 
as, 1 45 ; growing out of, 163; images of, 158, 
163; template of, 69; voices that crowded, 

children, 108, 118, 157, 1 59— 60; ignoring, 

1 72; intolerant of, 2 1 5; people who 
impressed as, 158; timelessness of, 2 1 5 
Chile, 98 

churches, 233, 235 
Churchill, Winston, 49—50 
class, 86, 162 
cliff edges, 21, 31—61, 157 
commitment, 39, 117, 180, 220, 234; absolute, 
36; financial, 73; obsessive, 215; true, 1 18 
compass, 46, 8 1 ; inner, 36, 58 
compassion, 84, 85, 1 30, 1 32 
competence, 1 3, 76, 1 29; core, 1 28 
complexity, 118, 142; layered, gritty, 93; 

imagination and, 60-1 
confrontation, 12, 53, 91, 92, 162, 189; 

dramatic, 147; lack of, 89 
consciousness, 42, 187, 221 ; growing, 65; 

history fading from, 235 
control, 107, 215, 240; loss of, 183 
conversation, 10, 14, 15, 16, 21 , 22, 35, 90; 
adult -adult, 47; can be good work, 1 97; 
captaincy and leadership, 61 ; companies 
must join, 242; conscious and unconscious, 
107; continuous, 197; courage and, 3—8, 58, 

1 34, 206; day-by-day, with the future, 

1 35—8; demand for different kind of, 243; 
difficult, 39, 174; encouraged onto other 
ground, 105; energy flows out of, 168; 
equals, 172, 233; frontier, 129; god 
inimicable to, 128; good, 174; heart of 
human life and commerce, 238; imaginary, 

1 35; intense, 199; intimate, 37; joined to, 
through want and difficulty, 93; Keats and, 
227—45 passim; lost, 200—1 ; midnight, 24—7; 
morning, 189, 192; necessary, 212; new, 

1 80, 236—7; not knowing how to begin, 
52—3; ourselves and world, 65; pleasant, 

208; post-lunch, 207; real, 61,91, 135, 174, 
236, 238, 239; respectable, 91 ; shared, 208; 
snatched, 1 26; staying true to, 48; surface, 

1 85; vital, 59; voices in, 56; with desire, 23; 
with great cycles of existence, 36; with 
rhythm of the ocean, 58; with world, 5 1 ; 
women’s approach to, 2 1 2 

Cook, Capt. James, 1 58 
courage, 13, 14—15, 23, 25-7 passim, 35, 37, 
43—4, 51, 53—6 passim, 133, 135; first steps, 
73; leaving or changing work, 200; living 
with, in work, 172; losing, 165; noisy 
natural, 232; refusal looks like, 181; utter, 

1 94; see also conversation; self; simplicity; 

Cousteau, Jacques, 64, 78 

creation, 7, 20, 61 , 67, 176-7; attention to, 74 

creativity, 5, 13, 14, 236, 237; creation and, 

1 76—7; frightening absence of, 70; nine 
different forms of, 165; not needed anymore, 
239; passion and, 238 
Crete, 197,206-7 
crisis, 35; midlife, 71 , 74, 209 
culture(s), 179, 199, 206, 231, 234; unfamiliar, 
33; youth, shared, 229 

Cumbria. See Derwent; Grasmere; Ullswater; 

cycles, 118, 176,221 
cynicism, 3,16, 46, 172, 200 

Dante Alighieri, 65 

darkness, 4, 75, 82, 84, 87, 1 30, 175; human 
light claimed back from, 218; outer, 
insulation against, 243; primacy of, 1 84; see 
also energy; existence; light; shadows 
Darwin, Charles, 32 
dawn, 187—8 

death, 25, 26, 33, 44, 46, 55, 1 1 5; arrival of, 
178; blessedly far away, 1 14; closeness of, 61 ; 
frontier between life and, 98; imminent, 

146; inner, 14; living, 1 3; memories and 
sorrow, 1 1 3; mother’s, 1 10; near, 97; 
stopping seems like, 128; target for our own, 
173; ultimate transformation of, 220; 
urgencies of life and, 99 
decisions/decision-making, 12, 38, 153 
defense, 1 15; ultimate, 1 17, 141 ; verbal, 89 
Derwent, River, 66 

desire, 1 1 , 1 3, 23, 33, 54, 55, 80, 1 36-7; 
acceleration arises from, 1 38; conversation 
with, 23; crossing the frontier to 
fulfillment, 140—1 ; deepest, images 
representative of, 63; deeply held, 78; 
familiarity with specific nature of, 56; 
heartfelt, 123; knowledge, renounced, 81 ; 
obtainable, 73; work, 79 
despair, 12, 19, 164, 206; inchoate, 1 1 
Dickinson, Emily, 1 14— 1 5, 239 

[2 4 9] 


difficulties, 35, 38, 45, 48, 69, 93, 123; father- 
in-law, 1 24; inherited, 89; joined to 
conversation through want and, 93; night of, 
78; surface, 23; time, 177-8; with hours, 
174; working, 120, 199, 208, 216 
direction, 16, 36,46,59,81, 123, 138, 169; 
indication of, 2 1 5 ; opposite, 185; possible, 
149; spiritual, 233; sudden loss of, 155 
disappearance, 78, 145-6, 148, 155, 176, 179, 
183; return to visitation of, 2 1 9; ultimate, 55 
disaster, 39, 102; near, 38,40,41,43, 57 
discipline, 1 34, 1 35, 223; artistic, 241 
discovery, 4, 63, 64, 67 
disease, 200 

disenfranchisement, 50, 232 
dispossession, 88, 93, 141 , 161 
dogs, 121—2, 149 

doubt, 1 29, 232; faith and, 7-8; self, 222 
Dow Jones, 23, 26, 185, 242 
Downing, Matt, 97, 101—2, 103 
downsizing, 142 
downtime, 215 

drama, 11, 12, 15, 40, 220, 222; family, 231 ; 
Greek, 103—4 

dreams, 10, 14, 63, 69, 98, 105; energy flows 
out of, 168; half-remembered, 1 82; in 
abeyance, 148; nighttime rehearsals, 147; 
particularly private, 159; passionate, 38; 
terror of, 146-7; troubled, 145; unfulfilled, 
26; work of, 135 
Dublin, 82, 87 
dying, 125 
Dylan, Bob, 77 

edge, 36, 39, 56, 57, 149; competitive, 211; 

elemental, 58; see also cliff edges 
Edinburgh, 166 

effort, 60, 1 20, 121, 149; psychological and 
emotional, 213 
Eliot, George, 1 65—7 
Eliot, T. S., 40 

emotion, 87; see also under various headings e.g. 

energy; love; pain; soul; trauma 
Enantiadromia 154 
Encantada (ship), 77—8, 79, 80 
encounters, 23, 24, 32, 91, 144; fleeting, 104; 
frontier, 36; involuntary, 2 1 9; passionate, 95, 
220; stored, 160; threshold, 89, 213; verbal, 
robust, 89 

endeavours, 4, 26, 39, 176, 200; looking back 
at, 222 

endings, 113, 114 

energy, 4, 7, 56, 71 , 72, 121, 1 29, 1 57; constant 
applications of, 80; emotional, 213; flowing 
out, 127; flows out of bodies, 168; memory 
and, 67—8; outgoing, 70; physical bodies and, 
194; potentially wild, taming of, 240; spent, 
5; voice tingling with, 149; youthful, 23, 122 
England, 16, 85, 86—7; see also Cumbria; 
London; Yorkshire 

enthusiasm, 5, 15, 91 , 145, 237; frightening 
absence of, 70; youthful, 65 
essence, 39-^0, 1 17, 172, 245; simplified, 142 
Europe, 242 
evening, 209 

excitement, 32, 36, 67, 82, 1 59; palpable, 64 
executives, 1 54— 5; see also CEOs 
exhaustion, 49, 60, 1 30, 1 34, 143-6 passim, 
211-12; antidote to, 132; falling to bed and 
rising, 1 77 ; melting away, 1 49 
exhilaration, 59, 83, 98, 100, 101 
exile, 66, 86; political, 49 
existence, 4, 7, 11, 38, 104; bastion against, 34; 
complexities and responsibilities of, 118; 
conversation with great cycles of, 36; cyclic 
visitation throughout, 71 ; difficulties of, 23; 
losses of, 165; philosophy of, 75; real, 75; 
realities of, 24; simpler, 13; singularity of, 
107; structures that inform, 1 72; see also 
death; life 

expectation, 13, 143, 146, 155; social, 168 
experience, 34, 57, 79, 195, 212; bridge of, 68; 
deeply personal, 67; early, 69; firsthand, 114; 
hard-won, 1 5; hunger for, 234; lifelong, 5; 
mythological layer of, 22; near death, 97; 
physical, 107, 1 17; primacy of, 200; real, 


exploration, 53, 75, 1 30, 1 35, 231 , 233; 
looking to frontiers of, 229; soul’s, 5 1 

failure, 1 3, 57, 73, 222; fear and, 238; 
possibility of, 1 48 , 244 

faith, 17, 37, 48, 66, 185; doubt and, 7—8; lack 
of, 52; presence as, 115; work and, 6—7 
familiarity, 13, 56, 141, 171 ; worn, 83 
family, 214-16 
fathers-in-law, 124 

fears, 24, 34, 37, 57, 146, 222; ancient, 184; 
child’s worst, 159; failure and, 238; fallen 
away, 244; familiarity with specific nature of, 
56; garnered, 129; inherited, 239; secret, 33; 
unspeakable, 32; unspoken, 53 

[2 5 0 ] 


fighters, 88-92, 93 
Finkel, Michael, 1 19—21 
fire, 4, 9, 14, 15, 54, 185; seen at distance at 
night, 184; stolen, 194; testing, 136 
food, 206—7, 208, 209; genetically modified, 


forces, 47, 73, 229; imprisoning, 155; market, 
242 ; shaping our future, 231; superhuman, 
39; tidal, 24, 64 

forgetfulness, 57, 65, 69, 70; self, 219, 220 
forgiveness, 217-23 
fortitude, 1 14, 204 
France, 193 

freedom, 19,64, 86, 153, 169, 210; belonging 
and, 233; essence of, 172; exploration of, 

231 ; images of, 1 57, 1 58; individual, 230, 
235, 243; journalistic, 50—1 ; longing for, 

234; making a break for, 60; memory and, 
160—2; parents’ sense of, 156; personal, in 
work, 155—6; possibilities of, 160; soul’s 
break for, 176; understood, 242; 
untrammelled, 194 

friendship, 20, 126, 128, 158, 185,210; 
luxuriant, 178 

frontiers, 36,48,79,94, 140-1,234; 
astonishing, creative, 196; audiences and, 

147; exhilarating, 98; looking to, 229; 
unknown, 51 , 149 

frustration, 18, 19, 144, 216; unspoken, 220 
fulfillment, 4, 5, 142, 195; crossing the frontier 
from desire to, 140—1 ; spiritual, 5 
future, 20, 22; collective, 232; conversation 
with, 239; forces shaping, 231 ; unknown, 24, 

Galapagos Islands, 32-4-, 36-7, 39, 40, 57, 75, 
76, 79, 96, 1 16; carefree fife in, 117; fierce 
ecologies of belonging, 107; genius of, 61 ; 
highly prized job in, 195; leaving of, 63, 74; 
life -and -death urgencies, 99; see also Hood 

Gates, Bill, 56 

generations, 14, 227, 228, 230, 232, 233 
generosity, 101, 180, 192, 195, 214; artificial, 

genius, 61 , 122; flawed, 159; possibility 
of, 140 

Germany, 65—6; Nazi, 50 

gifts, 54^ 56, 95, 1 38, 231 ; best, 60, 245; 

conversation about, 239 
Gill, Stephen, 66 

glamor, 74, 210, 218, 245; psychic, 106; 
seductive, 221 

goals, 79; arrival at, 140, 153; career, 108, 156; 

lifelong, 143; shared, 213 
God, 20, 69, 96, 144, 170—1 ; way of going 
about things , 1 00— 1 

good work, 6,12, 36, 76—7, 169; achievement 
of, 176; ancestors’ pining for, 26; child’s 
hopes for, 159; conversation can be, 197; 
finding, 60, 83; how it gets done, 1 19—22; 
means visibility, 146; multilevel discipline 
involved in, 223; patience and, 198; stakes 
in, 1 3 

goodness, 115,1 24, 142, 222 
Gorbachev, Mikhail, 50 
Grand Tour, The, 193, 194 
Grasmere, 67 

Greeks, 52, 103-4, 154, 164-5 
grief, 84,86,87,216 

happiness, 11,63, 108, 141, 143, 160,222; 
accessible, 142; bereft of, 210; deep, 

200; family, 216; measures of, 68, 153; 
road to, 223; secret crucial to, 181; 
waking, 188 
Hartshead, 160, 162 
Hayley, William, 4 
hazards, 1 2, 1 3, 148, 222, 245 
health, 145, 169 

heart(s), 7, 13, 14, 16, 1 26; affections of, 236; 

tremendously watchful, 196 
hiding, 3—4, 57—60; coming out of, 1 39 
hierarchy, 60, 90, 125,1 54, 230 
Hillman, James, 212 
Himalayas, 96 

history, 23, 230, 233; articulating and 
reshaping, 22; fading from consciousness, 
235; soul’s, 54 

home, 1 58-60, 210-15, 219; time spent away 
from, 172 
honesty, 90, 167 
Hood Island, 97, 98—9, 105 
hopes, 10, 11, 12,27, 146, 1 48 ; energy flows 
out of, 168; fragile, 14; painful, 159; spiritual 
and imaginative, 230; youthful, 1 5, 230 
Hopkins, Gerard Manley, 209 
horizons, 5, 64—7, 74, 75, 76, 78; ambition and, 
80; endless, 4; fading, 82; misted, 139; real, 
79; staying below, 1 54 
Horn, Cape, 98 
hours, 174, 176-7, 179-223 

12 S I ] 


humanity, 118, 172, 240; hidden in work, 210; 

night sustains, 1 87 
Humboldt current, 98 

humiliation, 18,41, 89—90, 1 1 9; absolute, 1 25 

idealism /ideals, 165, 168 
ideas, 5, 59, 125; fancy, 147; stranger, 129 
identity, 1 1 , 1 3, 25, 44, 109, 216; always- 
searching, 141 ; attempting to make, 214; 
attentive, powerful, and responsible, 59; 
bedrock, 221 ; built on speed, 1 19; core, 1 28; 
crisis of daylight, 217; depth of, 115; 
elemental, 60; established through work, 

222; forged through endeavours, 39; 
immobile, unattending, 121; individual, 
images of, 230; litmus test of, 58; love the 
measure of, 178; personal, 75, 155; 
pilgrimage of, 140; preserving, 1 56; 
professional, 60; totally different, 219; trying 
to establish through doing, 1 8 1 
Ignatow, David, 221—2 
illness, 173; debilitating, 145 
images, 46, 102, 134, 157, 240; childhood, 
158, 163, 186; contemplation, 188; fleeting, 
95, 210; individual identity, 230; inner, 52; 
irrational, 53; leadership, 241; parental, 44; 
precious, 1 1; representative, 63; sacrosanct, 
89; seeker, 141; swan, 148; timeless, 

227—8; true, 171 ; vague, 11 \ see also self- 

imagination, 3, 4, 7, 13, 16, 26, 32, 74, 80, 97; 
ancestral, ambition and, 108-10; artist’s, 

241 ; birth and, 113; Christian, 219; 
complexity and, 60—1 ; engaged, 5, 119; 
ennobled in own, 193; expressive, 63; far- 
reaching, 1 30; forces shaping our future 
mobilized by, 23 1 ; growing, 95, 1 59; 
instinctual, 235; listening and attentive, 25; 
mediated through technology, 23; religious, 
98; stirred, 34; youthful, 14 
immobility, 121, 123, 161 
immunity, 33, 104; illusions of, 35 
importance, 80, 89; self, 90, 1 17 
India, 242 

individuality, 51, 156, 214, 238; radical, 157 
information age, 1 86—7 
inheritance, 85, 86, 89, 92, 93; ingrained, 146; 
invulnerability and, 96—8; more spacious, 
234; of others, 94; outlaw in, 1 58; rich, 94; 
spiritual, 230 

inner states, 1 34; see also images; light; voice(s); 

inspiration, 4, 5, 65, 88, 175 

instinct(s), 3 1 , 50, 1 56 

insulation, 115, 142, 243 

integration, 39, 74, 183; summation and, 221 

integrity, 73, 165, 167, 243 

intellect, 130, 183,241 

intelligence, 212; canine, 149; cultural, 231 

intimacy, 22—4 passim, 37, 46, 107, 211; 

horrific understanding of, 53; light, 1 34; love 
and, 129; sleep as, 183; threatened, 128; 
ultimate defense against, 141 ; vulnerabilitv 
and, 147 

intoxication, 219—20 

intuition, 13, 79, 106, 136, 147-8; childhood, 
69, 70; deeper, 1 28 

invisibility, 49, 52, 86, 94, 110; cloak of, 161; 
connecting, 222—3; lonely, 171 ; visibility 
and, 244 

invulnerability, 95, 96-8 
Ireland, 82-1 10, 121 , 195, 208, 219; church, 

Irish Sea, 32, 109, 195 
Italy, 193, 233 ; see also Rome 

Japan, 230, 231 

jobs, 1 16, 141 , 198, 223; descriptions, 1 35; 
gloomy prospects, 32; good, 34; highly 
prized, 195; safe, 34; structured, 206 
journeys, 4, 10, 12,24,25,27,70,78, 101; and 
arrivals, 140; exhilaration for, 59; habits and 
outlook for next stage of, 155; into core 
sense of self, 157; looking back from end 
of, 245; poet in love with, 77; soul’s, 58, 

joy, 59, 62-3, 83, 143, 210; sensual 
appreciation of shared work, 208 

Kavanagh, Patrick, 192—4 
Keats, John, 55, 227—45 passim 
killing, 127,229 
Kirklees Priory, 1 62 

knowledge, 17, 147; ancestral, 161 ; detailed, 

16; impossibility of, 82; see also self- 
Kobe, 34 

labor(s), 5, 26, 117, 162, 206; being besieged 
in, 198; everyday, 86; never-ending, 215; 
shared, 208 

language, 59, 171 ; new, 240—1 ; real, 239; 

scientific, 75; technical, 239 
laws, 156-8, 162, 164, 169; breaking, 163 

[2 5 2 ] 


leadership /leaders, 57, 108, 238, 240; 
attributes of, 51; genius and, 6 1 ; good, 48 ; 
image of, 241 ; lost, 44-7; questions about, 
54, 55; see also captaincy 
leave-taking, 83, 88, 108—9 
life, 6, 8, 61 , 73, 220; arrival and departure of, 
115; awfulness of, 17; changing, 132; cliff 
edge of, 21, 31—61; contemporary, 93; 
corporate, 232; desire in, 1 1 ; difficult to 
survive, 93; frontier between death and, 98; 
future, 20, 22, 64, 71 ; giving, 3; good, 174; 
great conversations of, 194; imaginative 
conversation about, 25; inner imaginative, 
145; losses and gains that mark path through, 
159; lost, 245; material, 168; mature, 74; 
merciless dynamics of, 99; obsession with 
surfaces of, 233; one of the more 
incontrovertible truths of, 107; 
organizational, 164; personality built 
through, 222; precariousness of, 108; 
questions of, 55; successful, 76; surface, 73; 
unique, 60; work, 16, 96, 174; work brought 
to, 206 

light, 3, 127, 131, 194, 204; ability to step from 
dark into, 218-19; inner, 14; night, 218; 
passing, 1 69; see also fire 
lightness, 142, 143 
Lincoln, Abraham, 44, 45, 46 
listeners /listening, 22, 25, 61 , 89, 143, 148; 

unknown frontier between speaking and, 149 
living, 77, 245 ; everyday, 149; fighting for, 88-92 
London, 17, 72, 166, 167, 199, 243 
loneliness, 33, 84. 208, 210, 219; return to 
bleak shadow of, 211; see also aloneness 
longings, 77, 110, 138 

losses, 13, 14,70,85, 1 59; contemplation of, 
245; embers of, 110; existence, 165; of 
mother, 108; potential, 238; terrible, 86; 
unarticulated and timeless friendship with, 86 
love, 54,82, 129, 156, 178, 244; making, 183; 
mother’s, 83, 84, 1 10; new, 189, 210; objects 
of, 68 

luck, 94,95,96, 104 
Madrid, 218 

magic, 70, 129, 173; memory and, 22— 3 
Mahon, Derek, 195—6 
management, 240 
market forces, 242 

marriage, 63, 71 , 85, 128, 21 1 , 235; romance 
of, 21 5; unhappiness in, 11; with silence, 
173—8 1 ; work lays siege to, 156 

mastery, 76, 119, 120, 176, 188 
maturity, 3,4, 12, 108, 245; coming to, 100; 

distant, 159; fierce, 77 
meaning, 3, 12, 13, 26, 55, 61 ; currents of, 

148; trying to create too much, 1 54 
meetings, 197-8 

memories, 26, 67, 69, 70, 74, 83, 103; 
brushed aside, 1 59; central importance of, 

1 64— 5; childhood, 75, 158; death, 113; 
distant, 114, 117; energy and, 67—8; fearful, 
105; freedom and, 160—2; magic and, 22—3, 
25; old, 20; outlaw’s, 160; passing, 169; 
physical, 208 
mercy, 33, 38,61, 222 
metaphor, 40, 1 34, 1 37, 147, 200 
Michelangelo, 230 
Michigan, 168 
Microsoft, 167 
Midas, 1 54 

middle, 115; and muddle, 1 14 
middle age, 38,71, 1 66; see also crisis 
migration, 86, 231 
military might, 230 
millionaires, 167 

mind(s),7, 33,42, 130, 140, 217; clear, 145; 
foundational outlines, 158—9; seagoing, 41 ; 
telling us to rest, 208; see also consciousness; 

Mirfield Grammar School, 94—5 
mirrors, 72-3, 143—4 
moment of truth, 237 
money, 3, 167, 168 

morning, 189, 192, 195—201 passim, 209; early, 
2 1 1 ; no real beginning made in, 204; prelude 
to possibility, 206; prioritized, 206 
Morrison, Van, 77 
mortality, 61, 119 
Moses, 170—1 

mothers, 83-4, 85, 87, 96, 104-10; being far 
from, 97 

mountains, 9—27, 1 16 
Murdoch, Iris, 82 

music, 174, 175, 211,219, 233; distinctive, 
worldwide, 229 

NASDAQ, 23, 26, 185 
nature, 33, 35, 38, 53, 56, 61 ; eccentric, 51 ; 
elemental, 52; fear of, 34; human light 
claimed back from darkness of, 218; 
introduction to, 36—7; overpowering, 52; 
relationship with, 117; willful, 52 
navigation, 62—8 1,211 

[ 2 5 5 ] 


necessity, 163; absolute, 197; edge of, 35—8; 
simplest, 60 

need(s), 23, 36, 195; desperate, 125; inner, 


negative capability, 232 
neglect, 38, 41 , 57, 172 
New Orleans, 2 1 8 
New Zealand, 97 

night, 35, 78, 80, 127, 182—7; and forgiveness, 

2 1 7—2 3 ; glamor of, 245 
noon, 203—4, 205 
North Sea, 109 

obsession, 3, 74, 142, 210, 215, 233 
Oliver, Mary, 239 

opinions, 75; second, 44; shared, 41 
order, 35; natural, 67, 232; political, 50 
orphans, 47, 84, 234 
O’Sullivan, John, 88-9, 91 , 92, 107 
O’Sullivan, Mary Theresa, 85 
others, 67, 72, 147, 195; inheritance of, 94; 
reconciliation with shadows of, 217; standing 
up to, 52—5 

outlaw imaginings, 153—72 

Pacific Ocean, 32, 57, 107 

Paglia, Camille, 34 

pain, 69, 128, 159 

panic, 35,47, 84, 145,204 

parents, 26, 46, 63, 188, 230; facing one 

another in silence, 216—17; working, 1 56; see 
also mothers 

Paris, 1 66; Eiffel tower, 2 1 8 
Parks, Rosa, 49 

participation, 5, 69, 70, 164, 169; heartfelt, 35; 

responsive, 240 
partnership, 39, 234 

passion, 4, 14, 36, 38, 95, 1 30; creativity and, 
238; cured, 220; fear of, 237; personality 
and, 55—7; self-forgetfulness of, 2 1 9; see also 
under various headings e.g. enthusiasm; fire; 
innocence; joy; love; spirit 
paths, 55, 73, 76, 80, 81 , 159; hard, 79; hidden, 
160; new, 144; pilgrim, 137 
patterns, 121, 1 97 ; emerging, 120; 

exploring, 198; migratory, 86; sleep, 220; 
waking, 221 

personality, 222; all too familiar, 200; passion 
and, 55—7; professional, 182; target, 180 
persuasion, 3, 4; firm, 5,6, 10 
Picasso, Pablo, 77 

pilgrimage, 5, 12, 13,23,24, 78, 123; 
drama of, 220; historical reality close to, 

141 ; identity in work, 140; lifelong, 4, 

61, 216; night, 35, 221; to self-respect, 


poetry, 25, 44-5, 64, 74, 92, 1 30-1 ; adult, 95; 
definition of, 187; memorizing, 136, 146; 
opportunity to recite to audience, 144; 
presenting to the world, 147; silence and 
spaciousness of, 148; too little, 240; 
tugging and beckoning of, 123; work as, 

133, 134, 135, 148, 149, 204-5; writing, 

poets, 74, 90, 92; full-time, 123; good, 196; 
profound metaphor for, 1 37; see also Eliot 
(T. S.); Keats; Mahon; Rilke; Spender; 
Whitman; Whyte; Wordsworth; Yeats 
politics, 153, 239 

possibility, 80, 83, 93, 114, 140, 200; another 
word for manager, 240—1 ; continued, 159; 
darkness as, 184; erotic, 218; failure, 148, 
244; flood of, 158; freedom, 1 60; mantle of, 
153; morning, 1 97; morning a prelude to, 
206; new, 1 89; return of, overwhelming, 
143; world should be, 195 
power, 25, 37, 51 , 52, 104; artistic, 241 ; 
bland compliance to, 93; creative, 165, 

175; displaced, 88; great sense of, 129; 
irrational, 53; people placed in positions 
of, 238; personal, boundaries of, 94; 
spending, 1 64; strength and, 128; trying 
out the edges of, 158; unsettling, 103; 
youthful, 194 

powerlessness, 25, 44, 52, 88, 1 54, 1 56, 1 58; 

cornered, 1 59; in abeyance, 172 
prayer, 105, 130, 197,220 
presence, 36, 46, 48, 51 , 108, 179; childhood, 
183; economy of, 122; everlasting, 25; 
godlike, 88; paradise as, 115; pivotal, 149; 
rhythmic, 188; watchful, loving, 106; 
youthful, 97 

pressures, 166, 235; conforming, 165 

privacy, 128, 197-9,211 

privilege, 16, 24, 26, 168, 195, 21 1 

production, 5; aid to, 117; military, 230 

Prometheus, 193—4 

promised land, 140—4 

psyche: masculine, 21 3; middle-aged, 72 

PuertaAyora, 75 

Puget Sound, 1 16 

pulses, 234—5, 243 

2 5 4 ] 


qualities, 46, 5 1 , 68, 128, 236; ancient, 237; 
foundational, 238 

questions, 16—18, 123; core, 1 55; innocuous, 
124; leadership, 54, 55; pivotal, 155; 
sustained, 91 

quiet, 143, 213, 219; see also silence 

Rabida Island, 42, 43 
Raphael (ship’s captain), 42-3 
reality, 14, 24, 125, 176, 180; far-fetched, 107; 
historical, 141 ; inner, 49; personal and 
physical creature, 107 
relationships, 24, 47, 57, 90, 117, 118; 

committed, 1 56; essential, 122; healthy, 180; 
imaginal, 46; inner, 126; long-term, 74; 
parent-child, 217; partner, 217; perverse, 

1 74; privacy of, 1 28; questioning the realities 
of, 235; real, 61 ; time, 180 
religion, 20, 115, 147, 219 
respect, 104, 129; self, 223 
responsibility, 46, 47, 48, 59, 1 1 7, 1 1 8; be-all 
and end-all of, 41 ; carried in a selfish way, 
157; center of, 121; harsh spotlight of, 163; 
lack of, 43 

rest, 132, 175, 187, 208 

retirement, 38, 140, 156, 173, 242 

return, 209-14,215,217 

revelation, 104, 107, 170, 178; packaged, 234; 

speech and, 149 
reward, 125, 156,210,232 
rhythm, 31 , 58, 174; unconscious, 219 
righteousness, 97; self, 50 
Rilke, Rainer Maria, 130-1, 133, 148, 174, 

ritual, 98, 206, 209-14,217 
Robin Hood, 162, 163, 164 
Rome, 230—45; Sistine Chapel, 227; Spanish 
Steps, 228, 243; Vatican, 227, 229 
rule of law, 1 64 

rules, 14, 1 56; living outside, 163 
Russia, 230; post-Soviet, 163—4 

sacrifice, 26, 140, 215 

safety, 39, 140; career, 92; work provides, 35 

San Francisco, 50 

sanity, 32, 180, 199 

Santa Fe, 2 1 8 

satisfaction, 68, 214, 244 

science, 232 

Scotland /Scots, 93 

seasons, 179, 180 

Seattle, 115-16, 167, 168 
Second World War, 230 
security, 140, 232 

self, 26, 75, 126, 155; courageous, 167; elusive, 
147; giant, 50; grander, eternal, essential 
parts of, 8 ; heartfelt expression of, 13; inner, 
60, 167; shaping, 201-3; surface sense of, 
182; tired, 49 
self- absorption, 157 
self- appraisal, 118,217 
self-image, 48, 105 
self-justification, 167 

self-knowledge, 6,11; pilgrim’s path to, 56 

self-sufficiency, 96 

self- victimization, 231 

selfishness, 1 57 

selflessness, 3, 201 

serfdom, 163, 164 

sex differences, 2 1 2 

shadows, 127, 128, 161,209-10,214; 

reconciliation with, 2 1 7 
Shakespeare, William, 127, 241 
sharing, 41 , 207-9, 213, 229-30 
Shaw, Bernard (TV journalist), 50-1 
shock, 42, 46, 73, 107; of the real, 33—4; rude, 

sickness, 143, 167, 169 

siesta, 204, 206, 207 

silence, 9, 18,44, 84, 138, 175-6, 184; 

anticipatory, 136; both sexes approach, 212; 
eating followed by, 207; far-reaching, 1 24; 
fear of, 181; forbidden and private, 1 60; 
importance of, 89; long years of, 1 30; 
marriage with, 173—8 1 ; men generally look 
for, 2 1 3 ; of poetry, 1 48 ; parents facing one 
another in, 216— 17; relationship with, 174; 
spine-chilling, 123—4; stunned, 83; 
terrifying, 123 

simplicity, 171 ; necessary, 39—40; radical, 
courageous, 60 

singing, 83—4, 85, 86, 109, 1 10 
Sisyphus, 12 

sleep, 57, 58, 60, 142, 145, 182—3; exhausted, 
146; gravitational pull of, 204; night and, 

1 87, 22 1 ; patterns, 220; primacy of, 1 84; 
visitations of, 207, 2 1 9; see also dreams; 

social standing, 1 68 ; see also class 
song, 94; see also singing 
soul, 16, 23, 37, 51 , 54, 69; break for freedom, 
176; fortitude of, 1 14; journey of, 58, 59, 244 

2 5 5] 


sounds, 1 30, 145; see also voice(s) 
spaciousness, 60, 121, 137—8, 148, 153, 169, 

1 75, 2 1 1 ; appreciating, 1 88; bereft of, 

1 80—1 ; child’s sense of, 1 55—6; lack of, 1 64; 
obscured, 173; parents’ sense of, 156; 
silent, 176 

speech(es), 85, 149, 207; courageous, 51 , 58 
speed, 117-25, 128, 137 
Spender, Stephen, 54-5 

spirit, 54, 61,73, 84, 90, 1 30; self-forgetfulness 
of, 219; strange exhaustion of, 145; 
vulnerable, attentive, and compassionate, 
stars, 77—81 

Steindl-Rast, Br. David, 179—80 
stomach churning /gnawing, 200, 204 
stories, 25, 94, 95, 109, 155; eternal, 86; life, 
15; troubled, 84 

strangers, 1 5—16, 23, 24, 32, 38, 1 19; to selves, 

strength, 53, 128, 144, 205 
stress, 125,213; sustained, 2 1 5 
structures, 157, 172, 230, 233; invisible, 240; 
spiritual, 234 

struggle, 1 1 , 26, 140, 143, 166; ancient, 174; 
blemish removed from, 149— 50; daily, 176; 
emergence and annunciation, 186—7; gritty, 
ancestral and intuitive, 94; work, 167 
success, 72— 3, 239; insignificant, 126—8; 

nothing stranger than, 153; public, 1 59 
suffering, 165, 200 
suicide, 8, 18—19 
SunTzu, 183 

surfaces, 23, 73, 185,233-4,237 
surprise, 80, 88, 148—9, 178; grateful, 222 
survival, 47, 59, 93, 104 
Switzerland, 193 

taboos, 209, 218, 221 
teachers, 95, 160 
technology, 22, 23, 239 
tension, 56, 199, 21 3; residual, 221 
territory, 1 38, 1 54, 215; ahead, 79, 80; new, 
arrival in, 155 

terror, 35, 136, 146—7; night, 127; subliminal, 

Thatcher, Margaret, 50—1 , 52 
Thorpe, Richard, 94—5 

time, 115, 140; escaping the prison of, 173—81 ; 
lack of, 164; prime, 194, 198; spent away 
from home, 172; working together in, 209; 
see also downtime 

timelessness, 25, 156, 174, 176, 184, 208—9; 
children, 215; for homeward return, 217; 
image of youth, 227—8 
Times, The, 72 

tiredness, 49, 127, 134, 145, 21 2; competing, 
211; shared, 208 

traditions, 6, 12, 196; artistic, 1 15, 241 ; 
contemplative, 220; poetic, 236; religious, 

tragedy, 179,215,238 
transition, 211; and vulnerability, 214-1 7 
trauma, 105, 165; secret, 107 
triumph, 12, 24, 36, 96; future, 50 
truth(s), 8, 89, 124, 163; incontrovertible, 107; 
see also moment of truth 

Ullswater, 66 
uncertainty, 232, 233 

unconscious, 58, 1 18, 209; physical respect, 


understanding, 12, 85, 243; horrific, 53; lack 
of, 80; momentary, 148; self, 56 
unfamiliarity, 33, 143, 208 
unhappiness, 11, 1 88, 2 1 1 
United States, 50, 109, 1 1 5, 231 , 242 
universe, 59, 95, 1 84; science and, 232 
urgency, 23, 36, 1 18, 121,213; inner, 100; life- 
and-death, 99; merciless, 101 

veils, 86, 106, 126, 141 
Venice, 218 

visibility, 49, 1 26, 1 27, 138,1 94; everyone else 
sees, 1 54; good work means, 146; invisibility 
and, 244 

vision(s), 4, 194; artist’s, 241-5; Cubist, 77; 
future, 140; looking for, 10—11; night, 80; 
splendid, 70; youthful, 228 
vitality, 144, 145, 236; powers central to, 237 
voice(s), 38,52,56,72, 148, 149, 159,216; 
inner, parental, 38; singular and innocent, 
154; urgent, 1 24; see also singing 
voyages, 26, 182, 244 
vulnerability, 36, 63, 104, 1 18, 154; 

awkwardness and, 1 28-9; frightening, 99; 
intimacy and, 147; sleep as, 183; transition 
and, 214—17; words will not convey, 1 7 1 

waking, 58, 187—8, 189—92; patterns of, 221 
Wales, 9-10, 14-21, 32, 34, 121-2, 149; 

Snowdonia, 195, 207 
Wall Street, 173 
walls, 76-7, 119-21, 161,238 

[ 256 ] 


Washington, Lake, 167 

Waterford, 83 

wealth, 162, 167,222,223 

Welch, Jack, 56 

well-being, 169, 243 

Whitman, Walt, 44—5, 46 

Whyte, David, 169-70, 186, 189-92, 201-3 

will, 50, 71,1 20, 121,1 94; collapsed, 53 

Windermere, 66 

women, 212; divorced, 63; powerful, 52; 
wonderful, 85; young, 63, 72, 82, 87, 95, 

231 ; see also mothers 
Wordsworth, William, 65-70, 239 
work, 11—13, 14, 16, 24, 32—3, 65, 95; beauties 
of, 208; bent toward keeping chaos at bay, 

39; best of, 137; better, 47-8; brought to 
life, 206; centered on technology, 23; 
continuing, 63—4; core, 126, 147; corrupted, 
155; desired, 79; dynamics affecting, 58; 
escaping the prison of, 1 73-8 1 ; everyday, 

1 20; faith and, 6—7; fighting and starving for, 
73; freedom of movement in, 155; future, 

74; great conversations of, 1 94; hard, 4, 206, 
208; ideas of, 140; identity established 
through, 222; imaginative conversation 
about, 25; inheritance of, 85; inner, 13; 
intrinsic world of, 35; life or death 
consequences of, 36; life’s, 80; living at edges 
of identity in, 44; lone, 1 54; losses and gains 
that mark path through, 159; meaning of, 26; 
meaningful and creative, 77; metaphor for, 
137; more lifelike, 236; morning, 198, 207; 
no hiding from, 3^f; office of, 199; 
overcommitment to, 21 5; payment for, 144; 
personal freedom in, 156; poetry as, 133, 

1 34, 135, 148, 149, 204-5; practical, 86; 
preparing for, 1 64; pressures of, 1 27; 
private, 67; safe, 35, 38; same, 73; sanity in, 
199; self- conceited importance of, 80; 
shared, 208; shelter from, 219; sleeping 

Index compiled by Frank Pert 

through crucial moments of, 57; something 
hidden in, 222; specialized, 208; stakes high 
in, 172; structures of, 157; success in, 153; 
tiredness of, 49; tireless, effortless, 99; 
understanding of, 85; understanding of 
ourselves in, 56; virtue and, 243; Western 
ideas of, 5; see also approaches to work; 
careers; good work; jobs; workplace 
workplace, 125, 142, 240; new conversations 
in, 236—7; physical layout of, 199; 
postmodern, 216 

world(s), 4, 6, 1 1 , 32, 65; ability to articulate 
and reffame, 16; adult, 16; being right with, 
77; changed forever, 82; conversation with, 

5 1 ; facing, 146—50; future, 95; growing into, 
163; hard-to-obtain, 106; needs of, 23; new, 
236, 240—1 , 243; newly youthful, 236; 
ocean, 59; outer, 57, 61 , 73, 179; powers 
of, 1 37; practical, 68; presenting poetry to, 
147; technological, 22; unmediated by 
society, 33; unwelcoming, 75; very public, 
67; virtual, 95; way back into, 20; work, 23, 
35,86, 108 

World Trade Organization, 242 
worries, 105, 156, 221 

Yeats, W. B., 77, 126 
yes-men, 52 

Yorkshire, 37, 64, 85, 87, 96, 104, 107, 158; 
ingrained inheritance, 146; landscape, 

160-2; oppressed, dispossessed, 
marginalized people, 93; walls, 1 2 1 , 1 60 
youth, 4, 14, 15, 33, 69, 78, 86; all have the 
possibilities of, 245; college-age, 231-2; 
external search for, 72; Irish, 231 ; noisy 
natural courage of, 232; power of, 1 94; 
returned, 244; shared culture, 229; timeless 
image of, 227—8; wisdom of, 230 

Zen, 76, 220 

( 2 3 7} 



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